May-June 2017 | FYI


What’s up in the dance community

Celebrating Blacks in Ballet

Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet founder Theresa Ruth Howard (right) seeks to shine a spotlight on the contributions of dancers and educators such as Joan Myers Brown (left).
Photos courtesy MoBBallet

The online legacy project Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet (MoBBallet) seeks to educate and support dancers of color by “giv[ing] them back the history that belongs to them, [and showing] them that they do indeed belong—and are wanted—in the world of ballet,” founder Theresa Ruth Howard told Dance Studio Life.

MoBBallet highlights not only the contributions of influential figures such as Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer and artistic director emerita Judith Jamison, but those of lesser known and often forgotten dancers as well. Educators also get their due—the site’s extensive timeline begins with the founding of three schools for dancers of color between 1919 and 1926: New York City’s Gordon’s School of Dance, Philadelphia’s Essie Marie Dorsey School of Dancing, and Washington, DC’s Studio of Classical Dancing.

“To be taught by someone who looks and sounds like you makes you feel like you belong,” said Howard, an Ailey School faculty member and former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer. She spoke of “the isolation of studying ballet as a black/brown person—this is not to say that you don’t have friends or get along with your classmates, but there is a heart and soul of solitude that most of us experience.”

Howard said she hopes to encourage ballet organizations to “raise their P.O.C. [people of color] IQ” by considering diversity when they hire ballet faculty and by recognizing challenges that students of color and their families face. Visit mobballet.org for info.

Training Tomorrow’s Accompanists

Choreographer Mark Morris considers live music as important to dancers as the air they breathe. Although accompanists play for the 175-plus adults’ and kids’ classes at Mark Morris Dance Center (MMDC) in Brooklyn, New York, live music comes with challenges beyond finance and logistics—mainly, that the music industry no longer values “accompanist” as a career, director of education Sarah Marcus told Dance Studio Life.

The Mark Morris Dance Accompaniment Training Program—launched in partnership with The Center for Ballet and the Arts at New York University—aims to counter that impression by providing training sessions for up to 10 potential accompanists. Marcus said that the first session is tentatively scheduled for June 15 to August 3.

During the program’s pilot phase in March, several pianists worked at tendus and port de bras at a barre as they strove for a greater physical understanding of how music assists dancers’ training. “They got a sense of how a plié has buoyancy and a sense of rebound that can be supported by a juiciness in the music. For the pianists to feel that—it’s huge,” said Marcus, who explained that future training sessions will include percussionists, guitarists, and even DJs.

“The reality is that dance teachers’ language is different from musicians’ language,” Marcus said. Music training is part of all MMDC faculty development sessions; dance teachers learn the meaning of various musical terms and how to demonstrate combinations while taking into account musical considerations such as tempo. “We do that for our teachers,” Marcus said. “Why not have a program that takes the time to teach musicians what a dance teacher needs?”

Study Focuses on the Art of Attracting Audiences

A new study underway at Ballet Austin will help the organization better market its diverse onstage productions, such as Liminal Glam (above), choreographed by artistic director Stephen Mills.
Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood

As one of 26 U.S. performing arts organizations participating in The Wallace Foundation’s Building Audiences for Sustainability initiative, Ballet Austin is looking anew at some commonly held assumptions about ballet audiences.

Julie Loignon, Ballet Austin’s director of audience engagement, sales, and services, told Dance Studio Life that neoclassical ballets have always been a hard sell compared to classics such as The Nutcracker. But, Loignon said, information from focus groups shows that a ballet’s technique or style has less to do with attracting an audience than other factors, such as a recognizable title or familiar storyline. In the same vein, Loignon said, “We thought works-in-progress videos were working because they are all over YouTube.” But apparently audiences aren’t interested in the raw studio environment—they’re looking for proof they’ll enjoy the finished product. Loignon compared it to “going into a restaurant and spending $98 on a dish you’ve never tried. Are you going to like it? The investment in time and money can be an obstacle.”

The initiative, now entering its third year, is designed to help arts groups grow and sustain audiences; Ballet Austin is still collecting and analyzing information that will aid its efforts in that regard. “What we are learning,” Loignon said, will not be used to change the art Ballet Austin is making, “but [to] make us better marketers of dance.”

Postmodern Groundbreaker Trisha Brown Dies

Trisha Brown’s original abstract postmodern movement language infused the more than 100 dance works she created over her lifetime.
Photo by Lourdes Delgado

Influential postmodern dance choreographer Trisha Brown created an original abstract movement language that “brought tasks, rulegames, natural movement, and improvisation into the making of choreography,” Trisha Brown Dance Company resident scholar Susan Rosenberg said in a company website tribute.

Brown, 80, died March 18, 2017, in San Antonio, Texas. The Aberdeen, Washington, native first arrived in New York City in 1961 during the vibrant period that gave birth to Judson Dance Theater, and she created her eponymous company in 1970. For years Brown’s dancers performed without music on rooftops and in parking lots, art galleries, and museums; from about 1979 forward the choreographer created works for proscenium stages in collaboration with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and composers such as Laurie Anderson. In 1991 Brown became the first female choreographer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.