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Monday, April 6, 2020

Artists Reach Out: Danni Gee

Dear friends,

Welcome to Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation. I dreamed this series of interviews out of grief for my work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance. In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

But there's no distancing around what we still can share with one another--our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.

So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I'm glad they're part of our beautiful community, and I'm eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.

--Eva Yaa Asantewaa, InfiniteBody

Danni Gee

Danni Gee at SummerStage
(photo: JDH)

Danni Gee has over 35 years’ experience in the Arts and Entertainment industry, both on stage and behind the scenes. Her professional performing career began as a dancer with the Philadelphia Dance Company. After several seasons there as a leading soloist, Danni joined the world-renowned Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and remained there as a principal dancer for seven years. Danni’s dance career was ended abruptly due to injury, but she was able to then focus her energy on her vocal talent and has since gone on to provide backing vocals to artists such as Sister Sledge, Gloria Gaynor, and Cher. She also formed her own independent rock band, Suga Bush, and with Danni as the lead singer and songwriter, they perform regularly at renowned venues such as The Bitter End, The Blue Note and The Apollo.

Danni, however, has always kept one foot in the dance world, continuing to attend performances and classes. Danni accepted the position of Dance Curator for CityParks SummerStage in 2006. In her 14 seasons as Curator, she has engaged such established companies as Parsons Dance, Dance Brazil, Complexions Contemporary, Ballet, Kibbutz Contemporary Company, Morphoses, Martha Graham Dance Company, Limon Dance Company, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as well as many emerging choreographers and teaching artists. She has commissioned several new works for the organization, presented many World and New York premieres, and major cultural events, including the 40th anniversary celebration of the Broadway show, The Wiz; the Merce Cunningham Centennial; and the 10th anniversary of FELA! Danni, who is also a Music Programming Associate at SummerStage, assisting with the booking of domestic and international music artists, is also involved with the curation of SummerStage dance workshops, panels, and family programming. She also serves as an Artistic Advisory Board member for Brooklyn Dance Festival, Dancing in the Streets and Gibney and provides freelance administrative support to independent artists and companies.

Danni Gee at SummerStage
(photo: Melissa Cruz)

Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?

Not a personal project, but it is dear to my heart. My festival, SummerStage, is affected because normally by April 1st, we start building the Central Park venue. All of our seasonal production people start to return to work. It takes normally five to six weeks to get everything in place, from the stage to the dressing rooms, audience areas, etc. Our core staff is still working, albeit remotely for now, but I worry about our longtime seasonal staff who count on this annual chunk of income. And of course, all the artists that might be affected.

Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.

My arts journey started at the Performing Arts School of Philadelphia, a small private school that used to be on the campus of the University of the Arts. I started there in 6th grade and declared dance as my major in the 7th. When I was 14, an older schoolmate, Evelyn Watkins, suggested I audition for the summer program at Philadanco (Philadelphia Dance Company) where she was already a company member. I did and was accepted and, two years later, I joined the company at the invitation of the legendary Joan Myers Brown. Stayed there for six years before transitioning up to New York City and Ailey.

My current work as a presenter and curator came through the suggestion of a friend, Freedom Bradley, who was working with SummerStage as the Theater Director. The festival needed a new dance curator, and he implored me to apply. I was nervous as I had never done any “behind the scenes” dance work. But the amazing then-director of programming, Alexa Birdsong, took a chance and hired me. I guess she “saw something.” (smiling)

In a more specific way, what are you practicing? And what are you envisioning?

Right now, I am practicing focusing and flexibility. Being at home, I can get distracted easily. My mind bounces around a lot. So this has been an exercise in sticking to a daily program which includes, (especially during weekdays), morning coffee, making my bed, meditation, “going” to work at 10am, lunch at 2pm, giving myself projects to complete by end of day, working out after work, etc.

I am also using the time to watch, look and learn. Everything is going to be different. It already IS. That’s where the flexibility comes in. We all have to be open to sharing, collaboration, thinking outside the box, learning just a wee bit about technology than you already do because here we are. I see a lot more cross-pollinating. We can’t be selfish.

How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about?

I care about people. Humanity. Our children. So, to that end, whatever I can do to safely bring people together, to bring light to our shared humanity while celebrating our differences, I will do it. And I hope to continue doing that through the arts. People need to express themselves. Our children right now are scared because their parents are scared. There is pain, grief, anger, confusion. If what we do can provide an outlet for all of what we are feeling individually and collectively, then I am all for it. When--and I say when with the utmost hope--we are able to safely gather again, I want to make sure we are focused and ready to proceed. I would love to do a second line that starts at Columbus Circle and ends at the venue, with us singing and dancing together all the way to the stage.

How does your practice function within the world we have now?

Well, I was/am an artist first, curator second. I love to entertain, so social media has always been a fun place for me especially as I’m not on the stage as much now as I would like to be. I am definitely using this time to focus on personal creative projects (book, website, etc.), building up my platform and fortifying my connections. But being flexible in knowing that, every day is not going to be a good day; every day is not promised. Staying flexible and grateful. That’s how I’m functioning.


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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