Dance Archives

The Year in Dance: #BessiesSoBlack and Other Feats of Inclusivity Dominated the Stage


As I scan my 2017 datebook to identify the high points of my dance-world experiences, I realize that the great bulk of them involved performances and choreography by artists of color. The remarkable year began, you might say, with Danspace Project’s Platform 2016: Lost and Found, curated by Will Rawls and Ishmael Houston-Jones, for which Eva Yaa Asantewaa assembled a collective called the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds, an improvisational ensemble of 21 black dance artists, female or gender nonconforming, and one infant. On October 22, 2016, a packed sanctuary at Saint Mark’s Church watched the multigenerational group explore, discover, and perform, opening up to one another, and to us. In July of 2017, seven members of the original group performed at Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art, joined by eleven Boston-based dancers, and on October 9 of this year the original ensemble received a New York Dance and Performance Award — a “Bessie” — for their work. Yaa Asantewaa, for more than forty years an intrepid critic at the Voice and elsewhere (including her useful and eloquent Infinite Body blog), also received an award, for services to the field. At the Bessie ceremony, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was presented with a lifetime achievement award; one of the presenters that evening, Jerron Herman of Heidi Latsky Dance, murmured “hashtag BessiesSoBlack” as he took his place at the lectern. Statistics bore him out: More than half the nominations, and close to half the winners, were artists of color.

Another earlier project that bore rich creative fruit this year was Nigerian-American Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic, her 2014 performance work that the documentarian Andrew Rossi (Page One: Inside the New York Times) transferred to film and enriched with new material. Released in July, the Rossi-directed Bronx Gothic surrounded clips from recordings of several runs of the piece with interviews with Okpokwasili’s parents and with spectators deeply moved by her personal, highly physical show. Okpokwasili and designer/director Peter Born broke new ground in April with Poor People’s TV Room, staged at New York Live Arts, in which a multigenerational cast performed vignettes capturing the horrors of colonial Nigeria alongside popular tropes in today’s media-centric American universe.

Madrid-born flamenco artist Soledad Barrio, now resident in New York City and providing frequent opportunities for us to appreciate her during long runs in intimate venues, staged a return visit of her searing Antigona, conceived and executed with her husband and collaborator, Martin Santangelo, in a church sanctuary on the Upper West Side. A timely updating of Sophocles’ Antigone, it enfolded 20th-century political references and 21st-century hip-hop style into the classic Greek tragedy, performed in Spanish with English supertitles.

From the Horse’s Mouth, a perennial favorite conceived and directed by Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham, this year turned its illuminating gaze on performers from the South Asian diaspora. The project, begun in 1998, assembles groups of dancers of all ages and disciplines, prompting them to share stories about their professional lives, to improvise alone and with their colleagues, and to parade in costumes revelatory of their work. The April 2017 version, staged at the 14th Street Y, celebrating the history and scope of Indian dance in America “from Bharatanatyam to Bollywood,” and co-curated by Indian dance scholar Rajika Puri, displayed stunning finery, exquisite technique, live music, and moving tales told by the artists themselves.

Another superb evening of South Asian dance almost got rained out, but was ultimately blessed with a dazzling sunset and a crew of ardent mop-wielders who kept the performers from injuring themselves on the damp outdoor stage in Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park. Part of the 36th annual Battery Dance Festival, and taking place on a platform overlooking New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty, the free event included dances in several styles by Viraja and Shyamjith Kiran, Sruthi Mohan, Dimple Saikia, Aakansha Maheshwari, Kalamandir Dance, and Kalanidhi Dance. Rajika Puri was a guru for this program, too, speaking eloquently about the work of these artists.

Faustin Linyekula, a compact man from the Democratic Republic of Congo, offered two compelling performances at this fall’s Crossing the Line Festival, and also worked with young break dancers in Brooklyn and the South Bronx. First, in a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he explored, with dancer Moya Michael, the politics of curation, observing that artifacts from the colonial environment in which he was raised have mostly been transferred to foreign institutions. Two weeks later, at NYU’s Skirball Center, he offered the U.S. premiere of In Search of Dinozord, working with other African dancers, actors, and opera singer Serge Kakudji to recover memories of a missing friend and other fragments of their childhoods in war-torn Kisangani.

A black jazz great inspired A Love Supreme, a choreography by Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Spaniard Salva Sanchis. Taking a quite literal approach to John Coltrane’s brilliant 1965 album, which combines composition and improvisation for and by a quartet of fine players, De Keersmaeker and her young colleague assigned a dancer (José Paulo dos Santos, Bilal El Had, Jason Respilieux, Thomas Vantuycom) to each musician and both set movement on them and let them improvise. The result was sublime, simple, and clear, touring widely across the country and resonating for weeks after its September showing at New York Live Arts.

Sometimes I drop in on one-night-only, mixed-bill presentations at incubator spaces like Dixon Place. Last month I headed to that Chrystie Street boîte to check out the Raving Jaynes, a comedy-dance duo consisting of Jamie Graham and Amy Larimer, and found myself watching a program of work by performers (like Larimer) who teach at, or attended, Lehman College in the Bronx. A choreographer I’d never heard of, Beverly Lopez, shared the stage with four members of her REDi Dance Company in Look Again, her sharply conceived and performed contemporary performance that brought me up short with its clarity and power. Look out for Lopez; only two years out of Lehman, she has the composure and focus of a much more experienced artist — which bodes well for the future.