Dance Drives Dialogue

International colloquium in dance and performance studies addresses issues of race and racism in American classical ballet

The beauty and artistry of ballet can belie the sometimes painful truths that exist behind the dance.

Calvin Royal III and Unity Phelan in George Balanchine’s “Agon” (1957), Vail International Dance Festival 2018. Restaged by Heather Watts. Photo by Eric Baiano.

Calvin Royal III and Unity Phelan in George Balanchine’s “Agon” (1957), Vail International Dance Festival 2018. Restaged by Heather Watts. Photo by Eric Baiano.

“Those dances by George Balanchine and other 20th-century neoclassical choreographers reveal how the idiom of classical ballet has institutionalized and subverted American racism,” said Ninotchka D. Bennahum, a professor of dance and performance studies at UC Santa Barbara.

These ballets — such as the iconic, Civil Rights-era Balanchine ballet “Agon” from 1957 — reveal the complex relationship ballet and preeminent cultural institutions share with racial consciousness in the United States before and after World War II, she added. “Dance artists asked to undertake these roles have the capacity, the moral responsibility to shift our consciousness or to raise our consciousness. No work of art belongs solely to its time,” Bennahum said.

These topics and others will be considered when distinguished scholars and world-class performers gather Monday, April 29 in UC Santa Barbara’s ballet studio for the colloquium “Race, Ballet, American Dance,” a day of discussion and demonstration. Co-curated by Bennahum and Stephanie Batiste, an associate professor of English and of Black studies, the conference is the inaugural event of the International Colloquium for the Study of Dance and Performance Studies.

“We will pose the question, ‘What is the value of these actual works of ballet as historical archive?”

Combining elements of live performance and music, discussion and filmography, the multidisciplinary colloquium — which is free and open to the public — will explore the critical role of art in capturing and commenting on American history, specifically examining how racism has been institutionalized in American classical ballet.

“The history of the civil rights movement is written by ballet choreographers and modern choreographers,” said Bennahum. “Dancing bodies play a vital role in getting audiences, in raising public awareness to issues of injustice, to issues of joy and love and sexuality, and things that are not so easy to articulate with words.

“But these are not happenstance dances, these are dances that happened in very particular moments of time,” she added. “The relationship between African American vernacular dance, African American choreographed ballet and Russian, British, American ballet, really became a symbol of race relations in the United States.”

Participants will enter the event through a lobby exhibition featuring an archival collection of photographs curated by Bennahum from the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library, the largest and most comprehensive archive in the world devoted to the documentation of dance.

“I really feel that it’s very important for students that we show them dancing bodies they cannot see in Santa Barbara,” Bennahum said. “The gravitational center of dance in the world is New York and I just felt we had to bring it to them, and we had to bring it in the form of performance and in the form of art exhibit, images on the walls, so they see that this is an intellectual, academic subject they can study. But it cannot happen without performance because without that the archive is missing. You have to have a sense of the geography of the stage. For these kids learning to dance, to know and feel their way through history, kinesthetic awareness is really significant.”

Further to that end, the colloquium’s featured guests include Heather Watts, former principal dancer of New York City Ballet and a distinguished lecturer, who will present and stage two seminal works: George Balanchine’s “Agon,” with music by Igor Stravinsky, and Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun,” with music by Claude Debussy. The pieces will be danced by Calvin Royal III (principal dancer, American Ballet Theatre) and Unity Phelan (soloist, New York City Ballet), accompanied by New York City Ballet Orchestra pianist Cameron Grant.

“In different ways, at their premieres both Balanchine’s “Agon” (1957) and Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun” (1953) addressed issues of race,” said Watts. “I’m looking forward to sharing and examining these works at the colloquium, focusing on their impact felt not only in the mid-century civil rights era in which they were created, but also today as they live on through new generations of dancers.”

Also performing is Alicia Graf Mack, chair of dance at The Juilliard School and former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Alonzo King/LINES. Her piece will be followed by a conversation with Lynn Garafola, professor emerita of dance at Barnard College, Columbia University and “preeminent ballet scholar in the United States who, with her husband (American historian Eric Foner of Columbia University) is a really important race scholar,” noted Bennahum. Garafola also will lecture on the African American Presence in Postwar American Dance.

An artists’ roundtable early in the day will provide insight direct from dancers themselves, while a later artist-scholar discussion will offer a multi-pronged analysis of what has taken place during the conference.

“My research on Black dance often has a lot to do with analysis of form and in terms of movement and repertoire,” Batiste said. “Dancers often think about dance in ways that are really different from how scholars think about dance. Those two approaches to how the body makes meaning together in one space show the value of what scholars bring and what dancers bring to same work of art.”

Batiste gave much of the credit to Bennahum for putting together the colloquium, while Bennahum extended credit to Watts, to donors John and Jody Arnhold and to Majewski. “Dance is very expensive,” said Bennahum. “Classical ballet is very expensive and they have made this possible for the university, and believed that UC Santa Barbara, above every other place in the country, was the place to create a laboratory, a think tank, about race and ballet.

“We’re at a very tense moment in history,” she concluded. “Art plays a significant role in that conversation in these moments in time.”

Originally published in the UCSB Current on April 23, 2019.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, photo by Zoran Jelen.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, photo by Zoran Jelen.

Dancing the very fine line between high art and high camp, the internationally-beloved Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo bring their brilliant pointe work and vibrant drag costumes to the Granada Theatre (1214 State St., Santa Barbara) on Sunday, January 27 at 7 p.m.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, photo by Zoran Jelen.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, photo by Zoran Jelen.

Presented by UCSB Arts & LecturesLes Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo was founded in 1974 in New York City on the heels of the Stonewall riots, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (also affectionately called “The Trocks”)  is a company of professional male dancers performing the full range of the ballet and modern dance repertoire, including classical and original works in faithful renditions of the manners and conceits of those dance styles. The comedy is achieved by incorporating and exaggerating the foibles, accidents and underlying incongruities of serious dance. The fact that men dance all the parts—heavy bodies delicately balancing on toes as swans, sylphs, water sprites, romantic princesses, or angst-ridden Victorian ladies—enhances, rather than mocks, the spirit of dance as an art form, delighting and amusing the most knowledgeable, as well as novices, in the audiences.

“The funniest night you will ever have at the ballet,” writes The Sunday Times (U.K). 

The Trocks’ numerous tours have been both popular and critical successes—the company’s annual schedules have included six tours to Australia and New Zealand, 25 to Japan (where annual visits have created a nation-wide cult following and a fan club), 10 to South America, three to South Africa and 55 tours of Europe. In the United States, the company has become a regular part of the college and university circuit, in addition to frequent presentations in all of the 50 states. The company has appeared in more than 35 countries and more than 500 cities worldwide since its founding.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, photo by Zoran Jelen.

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, photo by Zoran Jelen.

For tickets or more information, call UCSB Arts & Lectures at 805/893-3535 or purchase online at www.ArtsAndLectures.UCSB.eduTickets are also available through The Granada Theatre at 805/899-2222 or granadasb.org.

Leslie Dinaberg

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons on January 24, 2019.

Everybody Dance Now! Holiday Performance

Everybody Dance Now! courtesy photo.

Everybody Dance Now! courtesy photo.

Looking for a fun, holiday performance to take the kids to? Everybody Dance Now! Invites you and your family to the Everybody Dance Now! Holiday Performance on Friday, December 14 at 5:30 p.m. at the Santa Barbara County Education Office Auditorium(4400 Cathedral Oaks Rd., Santa Barbara).

Everybody Dance Now! courtesy photo.

Everybody Dance Now! courtesy photo.

“We are excited to continue building our diverse dance community, transforming our youth through the power of dance, and showing how a strong culture of unity and love can be created through the arts. Anyone who has attended one of our performances can tell you, the night is super high energy! In fact, you probably won’t stop smiling,” say the organizers. “This year we have performances by our weekly youth dance classes, guest dance performances, parent dance-offs, yummy baked goods, activities for the kids, and prize giveaways. This is an event for everyone, so invite your friends and family for a night of dance and holiday cheer!”

Guest artists include  DJ Sparx and MC Omar Khan in what is sure to be a fun, high-energy night of entertainment.

The event is donation-based and is free to attend.  Everybody Dance Now! will allocate all funds raised towards continuing to offer free or low-cost dance classes to hundreds of dancers each week. For more information about the event and this terrific organization, visit www.everybodydancenow.org.

Everybody Dance Now! courtesy photo.

Everybody Dance Now! courtesy photo.

Leslie Dinaberg

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons on December 8, 2018.

Lil Buck – A Jookin’ Jam Session

Lil Buck, photo by Kyle Cordova.

Lil Buck, photo by Kyle Cordova.

JOOKIN’ (jook·in): A street dance style that emerged from Memphis, Tenn. Identified by its extremely intricate footwork and propensity for improvisation, seen by many as a descendant of hip-hop and jazz, with elements of ballet and modern dance. 

See what jookin’ looks like for yourself, when UCSB Arts & Lectures presents Lil BuckA Jookin’ Jam Session—directed by Damian Woetzel, featuring Sandeep Das, Johnny Gandelsman, Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles, Cristina Pato and Wu Tong—on Tuesday, October 25, at 8 p.m. at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.).

Named one of Dance Magazine’s 25 to Watch, Lil Buck has performed on Madonna’s Rebel Heart tour, in a highly-praised program at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis, in a mesmerizing performance with Yo-Yo Ma to Saint-Saëns “The Swan,” with New York City Ballet, in Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson: One and in numerous other high-profile collaborations.

Lil Buck, photo by Kyle Cordova.

Lil Buck, photo by Kyle Cordova.

“I think he’s a genius, ” says Yo-Yo Ma. The New York Times says, “Lil Buck has already carved out a niche that almost no other dancer can fill, bouncing from music videos (that’s him, slo-mo spinning through Janelle Monae’s ‘Tightrope’) to a Super Bowl halftime show (2012, with Madonna) to Lincoln Center.”

A Memphis jookin’ phenomenon who also received early hip-hop training from and studied on scholarship at the New Ballet Ensemble, this genre-defying artist is taking the world by storm.


 

For more information or to purchase tickets call 805/893-3535, visit www.ArtsAndLectures.UCSB.edu or call 805/899-2222 or visit granadasb.org.

Leslie Dinaberg

Originally published in Santa Barbara Seasons on October 21, 2016.