Saturday, February 2, 2019

Dance and Social Justice: UBW, Ananya Dance Theatre and me

Urban Bush Women
BRIC
January 31-February 9

Here's one of those productions that people are going to be talking about for a very, very long time. But when I talk about Hair and Other Stories it, I don't even know how to label it, because it's not a dance show. It's a spectacle, a marketplace, a cultural archive, a community chat about race, a hot dance party, a chance to get your hair trimmed by a really smooth barber and, I guess, anything that you--as an engaged audience member--are willing to get yourselves into. You are an essential part of it. All of this unfolds at BRIC, where Urban Bush Women has been enjoying a residency, and hooray for BRIC for this exciting curation. I danced some (to the irresistible DJ-ing of The Illustrious Blacks), and I also sat in rapt admiration as members of Urban Bush Women threw down some of the most vibrant, urgent and gorgeous performing I've seen from them or from anyone in a very long time. Performing to meet the needs of our times--direct, uncompromising, utilizing the far reaches of their physical and expressive energies, and presenting issues of race and culture inside a multilayered, multifaceted context that emphasizes the expansive richness of what it means to be Black. Choreographed by Chanon Judson (whose intense performance seared me) and Samantha Speis in collaboration with UBW. Bessie nominations to the team on this one, please. Hair and Other Stories INFO/TICKETS


Urban Bush Women in
Hair and Other Stories

Ananya Dance Theatre in
Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds
(photo: Randy Karels)


Symposium on Dance & Social Justice
Dance Department, Mason Gross School of the Arts
Rutgers University
February 1

I spent yesterday afternoon and evening on the Rutgers campus, the guest of dance artist Ananya Chatterjea of Ananya Dance Theatre, who is wrapping up a residency at Rutgers's Mason Gross School of the Arts, and cared for graciously by Dance Department Chair and Artistic Director, Julia Ritter, Ph.D and MFA in Dance Director, Jeff Friedman, Ph.D. Chatterjea had invited me to join her panel on dance and social justice* which included Hui Nui Wilcox, Ph.D, educator and Ananya company member; Zaneta Rago-Craft, Director at Rutgers's Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities; and Lela Aisha Jones, dance artist and Founding Director of Lela Aisha Jones│FlyGround.

Afterwards, I enjoyed a soul-warming dinner and conversation with some fun table-mates--among them, Jones and Donia Salem (Executive Director, The Outlet Dance Project). Then we all took in ADT's Shaatranga: Women Weaving Worlds (which concludes at Rutgers's Loree Dance Theatre this evening). Chatterjea's vision for her all-women ensemble blends contemporary with classical Indian movement, serene visual design and formal choreography with a confident infusion of the rebellious personal and political spirit she first observed in the theatrical street demonstrations led by Indian women and trans femme activists. Learn more about ADT's residency here.

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*My opening remarks from the day's panel

The arts have always been my refuge--from a sometimes difficult home; from an often difficult society. Up until recently, I was able to say out loud how much I counted my blessings to have work that would always surround me with artists.

That was true for my work as a dance writer and certainly even more true now for my work as a curator for a major dance center.

Artists were my bulwark, my grounding force, my heat shield. But is that what artists are for?

Not today.

I have an old friend out on the West Coast, a former New Yorker, who is Black and indigenous and queer, a poet and visual artist. One day when I was complaining to her on Facebook Messenger about the general run of things in Grump’s America, she reached into that multifaceted basket of hard experience and wisdom to remind me that it’s actually an honor to be alive now in this challenging time.

And I flashed back to what the poet June Jordan wrote, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” It truly says something fierce about us--and about some committed vow that we must have made before being born--that we are right here and right now with our eyes open and our skills sharpened. Ready to rumble.

As children are torn from their parents at the southern border or mis-educated in their schools or shot to death in those same schoolrooms, artists are not, for me or for any of us, just something to lean upon or hide behind or be distracted by.

Artists are knights, armored up and charging forward into the worst of things. Because how can they not?

Their capacity to honestly witness, process, analyze, dream up, brainstorm and collaborate and build with others are what we need now, because we are coming up out of a deep and deeply-troubled sleep, roused by multiple monsters of oppression.

And what of our artists?  If they are not, themselves, prone to the American way of denying, hiding, numbing the self or following addictive distractions down all sorts of sinkholes, our artists are doing their work despite the fact that they themselves might be on the verge of nausea, or they somehow manage to keep going with only that one. last. good. nerve.

A dance artist I once interviewed noted how much Black/lesbian/poet/warrior/mother Audre Lorde influenced him. He remembered that she would always ask, pointedly, “Are you doing your work?”

Most of the artists I know and respect are doing just that--their work--with more focus and determination than ever before. Which does not make it nice and easy for the rest of us. It provides no hiding place. One of the dancers of Urban Bush Women said it best last night at the premiere of Hair and Other Stories: “Safe space is not comfortable space.”

The windstorm kicked up by those knights artistic as they charge past us cannot be ignored. We are caught up in it, too, swept along to the battleground.

As my West Coast friend would say, There are no mistakes. We are meant to be here. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Let’s do our work.

-- Eva Yaa Asantewaa


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DISCLAIMER: In addition to my work on InfiniteBody, I serve as Senior Curatorial Director of Gibney. The postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views, strategies or opinions of Gibney.

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