Moving Reflections

“Who Exactly Are We?” – Zachary Whittenburg’s closing Moving Reflections for Diversity Then/Now

As the discussion titled “Diversity – Then/Now” approached its conclusion on March 10 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Jethnam Fabara, a young man and dancer asked, “Who do we think about inviting next time?”

Who do we think about inviting next time? Who’s in the room? Who are the gatekeepers, and who do we as a “dance community” want to be?

Who exactly are “we”? In the U.S., many practitioners, artists, presenters, funders and administrators in dance have in recent years — and especially in the last nine months — become seriously concerned about whether or not their field is adequately representative and supportive of diversity. In Chicago in particular, this concern manifests itself explicitly and publicly, in institutional language, programming decisions, lobby conversations, post-show discussions, panels such as “Diversity – Then/Now,” and the series of events that it launched, “Moving Dialogs” (which includes this blog).

When I get writer’s block, I try to think of analogues, correlating examples in other contexts. Is the “music community” asking itself the same questions, and coming together around efforts to progress fair representation of forms in recording contracts, venue bookings and total downloads?

It is not, for a number of reasons, one of which being there is no “music community” in any relative sense. There are communities, plural, to be sure, in the music industry; I think of jazz among genres in which most players seem separated by single-digit degrees. Likewise, one imagines that many DJs of Italo disco or baile funk know one another. In Washington state, there exists a Puget Sound Folk Harp Society with its own newsletter, Reigning Harps. But any one subscene is probably not too concerned with what goes on in another.

Following this train of thought, I wonder if this preoccupation with diversity in Chicago’s dance scene is best understood as a symptom of scarcity, perceived or actual. Might “the diversity discussion” simply evidence circled wagons in a vast expanse of readily available cultural product, of unprecedented competition for market share? If the dance field was larger, more robust and potentially lucrative, would any of its members protest a presenting season that included zero companies with members of color? Would a festival only inviting organizations whose work is in Western forms provoke criticism of its narrow focus? Not likely, if the same market offered an analogous festival only inviting organizations producing Bharatanatyam, footworkin’, Contact Improvisation or hula. I’ve heard few complaints that one cannot expect to hear good bluegrass during Pitchfork.

This train of thought, it turns out, does not travel far, for this plethora of opportunities does not exist for dance artists. The number and variety of venues for dance in Chicago, impressive as it is, does not rival the number of local spaces where one might hear live music or see theater. The reality is that dance is made, presented and experienced at a scale where familiar faces outnumber fresh ones — even in the art form’s global capitals, our windy city being one.

To the credit of local dance artists, administrators, funders, practitioners and presenters, many choose to pursue equity, grow visibility for the marginalized, and protest missing or poorly maintained avenues of access. This community could accept its smaller-scale examples of broader injustices, but increasingly, that does not appear to be a palatable choice.

This could evidence circled wagons, sure. But it could also be a sign that this field, given the proximity of its active members, might recognize now the inevitability of addressing its shortcomings. More fractured and, yes, diversified art forms are under smaller guns to find common ground between disparate genres. No deadline looms for Pacific Northwest harpists and carioca turntablists to identify their shared vocabulary and acquire knowledge of each other’s complex histories.

The relative lack of cultural influence that practiced and performed dance wields compared to other humanities in the U.S. tends to be assumed a net handicap. Sarah Dandelles, “Diversity – Then/Now” core participant, and dance and movement programs director at the Old Town School, located one flip side as she related a project that began three years after she joined the organization.

“We held a census about what to do with these small rooms that we had…and found that the most diverse group of people who were entering [the Old Town School] were people who were coming to dance.”

Dandelles noted also that the school’s dance faculty is its most diverse population internally. “Within our folk school, the people who were the people of the world were the dancers. That’s why this building is here,” she added, referencing the discussion’s venue, a $16 million, third facility dedicated in January 2012. “We said, ‘We need more space for this most important art form that’s tied to music.’ ”

• • •

“Diversity – Then/Now” began with music, a recording by John Coltrane from 1964’s A Love Supreme titled “Acknowledgment.” Host, moderator and “Moving Dialogs” curator Baraka de Soleil then read 37 words aloud:

“Religion. Skin color. Sexuality. Traditions. Parenting. Race. Ethnicity. Gender. Cognition. Aesthetic. Economic status. Ability. Age. Philosophy. Spirituality. Politics. Expression. Physicality. Sensibility. Vision. Home training. Environment. Family. Ancestral connections. Rituals. Language. Comprehension. Lovemaking. Education. Perception. Learning. Realities. Bodies. Dance.”

He repeated “dance” twice more, then quoted the first of scholar Deidre Sklar’s “Five Premises for a Culturally Sensitive Approach to Dance” (1991):

“Movement knowledge is a kind of cultural knowledge. To speak of movement as way of knowing implies that the way people move is as much a clue to who they are as to the way they speak.… It is time to deal with movement in a culturally sensitive way and to give movement a more central place in the study of culture and culture a more central place in the study of movement.”

If it was time for these things in 1991, where are we now, 22 years later? To judge by words heard on March 10: still working our way through multilayered and prismatic obstacles between daily realities and this hypothetical place where one “movement” and one “culture” are prepared for resolution. Core participant and artist NIC K reflected on an observation made earlier by Wilfredo Rivera, artistic director of Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre.

Rivera had noted the problematic nature of inviting a diverse group of artists to audition, and being met by discrepancies and imbalances in their readiness for professional work in concert dance. “We need to think about aesthetics in terms of what we’re looking for,” K replied, proposing that greater progress might lie in reconfiguring one’s assumptions about movement alone.

Onye Ozuzu, dance department chair at Columbia College Chicago, related her observations about the current state of that department and institution in relation to such a reconfiguration. There is “a lot of excitement and questioning and identifying of terms,” she said; faculty members have applied much thought and work to how best to provide each student with a “breadth of opportunity” to become the dancers they want to be. She then wondered aloud, “Is it right? Well, it’s what we’re doing right now, and we’re going to assess it as we go along… We need to be comfortable enough with the process of change that we can be ready to change again when we need to.”

Again, solid evidence that this field, dance, given the proximity of its active members, might recognize earlier — now — opportunities to accommodate and reflect accurately the fact of diversity in Chicago and on this planet.

Which is not to say that proximity is the only trigger. Any and all dance — all movement — inherently, inescapably explores change. It is incumbent upon any dancer to decline wedding one state. Any rich dance, any full dance is a kind of travel, and any true travel requires surrender.

“When I hear the word ‘diversity,’ I put the brakes on,” admitted Robert Battle, choreographer, and artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “‘Where is this gonna go? Do I have an answer?’ It’s the not-having-an-answer that is interesting to me as I journey.… It’s like making a dance: You go into the studio hoping you have answers, but it’s the not-having-answers that makes the work.”

He and Julie Nakagawa, DanceWorks Chicago artistic director, discussed briefly Battle’s approach to teaching while in residence with Nakagawa’s company at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. “It’s dance history shrouded in dance class,” Nakagawa explained, combinations of steps referencing “[Martha] Graham, [Paul] Taylor — all over the board, in 90 minutes. It illuminates everyone’s background, what we have in common, how we are different, and what we have to do to stay true to each other.” (I’ve seen Battle teach, and can verify not only that this is true, but also that dancers who take his classes look like they’re having the times of their lives.)

Attendees of “Diversity – Then/Now” — more than 80 despite pouring rain — paid close attention to all speakers and responded quite specifically to one another. The discussion held a polite, quiet patience, although applause broke out spontaneously after words from Chicago vogue dancer Benji Ninja. As best I could transcribe on my laptop, he said:

“The history of the word ‘diversity’ and its relationship to the conversation that we’re having is really important to me. The way we use the term ‘diversity’ is actually relatively new.… I think that ‘diversity’ is an idea that institutions of power developed to satiate and calm movements without actually creating any structural change — and I think that is still how the term is used today.

“I tend to find that ‘diversity’ doesn’t actually mean ‘access’ or fundamental structural change. It means commodification of oppressed people and our traditions.

“It’s important to be vigilant. My first responsibility is to the empowerment of my community. What I would like to talk about is maybe not as much ‘diversity’ in the way that that buzzword is used, but democracy in dance, democracy in art, and actual, structural changes in the role that dance has.”

Earlier in the evening, 18-year-old Chicago dancer Dorian Rhea offered echoing views of diversity’s double edge.

“I think that Chicago is the perfect place to have this conversation,” he said. “But separation and isolation are as much a part of Chicago as diversity is.”

“I think dance is pushing forward ideas,” he concluded, “and giving us something to look at that’s positive, as opposed to negative.”

Audience Architects’ Moving Dialogs series continues April 8, 2013 with “One World” in Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 East Washington Street). Hosted by Urban Bush Women founding artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, “One World” will bring representatives from a variety of dance practices and organizations into dialogue and movement with attendees. The event begins at 6:30pm, is free and open to the public (RSVP here).

 Zachary Whittenburg is Manager of Communication at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

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