“We are not ‘other,’” says Laura Elaine Ellis, one of the producers of the Black Choreographers Festival. “Our stories are extremely relatable. We have deep roots in this country,” she adds, noting that she can trace her ancestry in America back eight generations. For eleven years, the BCF has presented works created exclusively by African, African American, and Afro-Diasporic choreographers, many of them groundbreaking, cutting-edge, and worthy of wide recognition. Ellis’ refers to BCF’s track record as “vibrant, provocative, and dynamic,” adding that the festival’s aesthetic and artistic expression is relatable, “even if you are not African American.”
As a dance subculture, black choreography is on the rise; the number of black choreographers nationwide has tripled over the past 25 years, according to records compiled by the International Association of Black Dance. The Bay Area in particular has been fertile ground for black dance; many resident companies operate out of Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd Center For the Arts, and San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center For the Arts, Dance Mission, ODC, and CounterPulse have all regularly presented works by black choreographers. BCF—whose Spring program takes place the last three weeks in February in both SF and Oakland—has been a factor in the cultivation of the art form, creating a path for emerging local talent and encouraging collaboration between companies (in order to avoid what Ellis calls a “silo mentality”).
A tangible sense of community is welcome in a field where black choreographers often struggle with limited resources, and spaces for their art. There’s no real, logical, explanation for this; it’s evident that something other than passion, talent, quality of artistic expression, and work ethic is holding black choreographers back.
However, thanks to BCF, Bay Area residents do have opportunities to see innovative black dance performances which may not be offered in other regions. This year’s Spring program includes several premieres, in addition to previously-debuted works which audiences may have missed. BCF has also intentionally extended its programming beyond February—breaking out of the Black History Month box—and now offers programming throughout the year. As Ellis says, “We discovered that audiences are thrilled about seeing African derived dance in months other than February.”
Talking with Ellis over the phone, it’s hard not to share her contagious excitement over BCF’s February lineup. Among the many highlights are a premiere of a new work by Marc Bamuthi Joseph, “The First 100 Days of Trump,” and selections from Joseph’s 2016 work, “/peh-LO-tah/.“ Dimensions Dance Theater will reprise “Panther Power,” a piece inspired by the 50th Anniversary of the Black Panther Party, which only ran for one night last year. Crystaldawn Bell, an Isadora Duncan award nominee, will perform a solo from Robert Moses’ “21 Fully Realized Incomplete Thoughts.”
The reprising of recent works is a bonus for those who missed them the first time, but for many on both sides of the stage, much of the anticipation around BCF is the many premieres – a list which includes established choreographers include Gregory Dawson, Chanel Bibene, Maurya Kerr, and Raissa Simpson. Also not to be missed is a work by Ibrahima Diouf, the son of legendary West African husband-and-wife duo Zak and Naomi Diouf.
It’s a BCF tradition that the last week of programming is dedicated to emerging new talent; this year, Alexander Zander Brown, dana e. fitchett, Ashley Gayle, and Noah James, Stephanie Hewett, Sheena Johnson, Erik Lee, and Dazaun Soleyn will all debut dances.
As if that wasn’t enough, there are also two film programs. On February 12, Delina Patrice Brooks’ film “Sole Bares Sole”—an in-depth look at 15 female practitioners of traditional African dance—will screen, followed by a panel discussion. On February 25, the award-winning documentary “Herencias de un Pueblo” focuses on the remarkable story of Afro-Peruvian dancers striving to maintain a tradition older
“There’s a lot of diversity in the forms of expression which hit the stage,” Ellis says. It’s one of BCF’s strengths, a range which covers everything from traditional ethnic folkloric art to ultra-contemporary modern dance, all within the scope of black artistry in movement arts. What’s especially cool about BCF is that its range encompasses everything from the personal to the political; artists aren’t told what they should do, but supported when they create works which may be poignant, emotionally-resonant, or have deep social, cultural, and political ramifications. “Artists are taking risks. We don’t micro-manage them,” Ellis explains.
From a choreographers’ perspective, the opportunity to not only take risks, but be encouraged to do so, seems to resonate strongly. It’s not exactly safe to present a piece inspired by a group who were criminalized by the government, but Vaughan says her intention with “Panther Power” is to thank them for their service and acknowledge their relevance.
“We chose to do the work because it’s so similar to what’s happening today,” she says. “The Panthers were started because of police violence… The piece looks at what they were trying to do that was positive. Everyone knows how the movement ended… [but]their goal was to serve and protect the community.”
While many think of militant images when the Panthers are mentioned, “what we wanted to bring to stage was really how vulnerable they were,” Vaughan says. She adds, “Some of these dancers were born after the movement was long over.”
BCF is important, she says, because it “can bring to the stage artists that would not be seen otherwise, or it would be harder for them to be seen. This is a way of getting their work seen.”
Vaughan is just getting warmed up. She continues to riff on how important it is to nurture and mentor younger artists. “The next generation has to be encouraged and their work has to be seen!,” she exclaims. I always have my eye out for up and coming choreographers to give them an opportunity.I think that is not only important but essential.”
Erik Lee is one of those young dancers discovered and mentored by both by Ellis and Vaughan. After attending the Men of Color conference Ellis started, in which experienced choreographers taught newbies, Lee was invited to be a guest dancer with Dimensions. He studied “modern, Congolese, Cuban, capoeira,” and performed in Dimensions’ “Down the Congo Line,” an examination of the influence of Congolese dance on other dance forms. “It was an awesome experience for me to get my feet wet,” he says.
Not long after he joined BCF’s artist and Mentorship Program, which pushed him toward creating his own choreography. Now he’s presenting that work at BCF. “It’s amazing to be a part of this experience,” he says – “a culture of people sharing and really valuing each other. That’s what I really appreciate about BCF.”
Another fresh face on the choreography scene is Dazaun Solleyn. The son of a soca DJ, Solleyn grew up in New York, rooted in Caribbean dance forms. He trained in both ballet and hip hop before being accepted into the AMP program – which he says changed his approach toward creating movement.
To him, dance is like an abstract painting; he’s more interested in where the process will lead him than in going into the process with a preconceived result. “I’m trying to explain something I don’t even understand yet,” he says disarmingly. “I would say it’s like a baby learning how to talk… it’s like that process.”
Solleyn isn’t quite sure how the new work he’s presenting at BCF will turn out, but he’s excited about the creative possibilities. “I go into a space completely open… to create what wants to come out,” he says. Working with BCF has not only allowed him free reign to experiment, but provided a platform for him to present his art in front of a broadly supportive audience. There’s pressure—and the possibility of failure—but also the possibility of triumphant joy.
Stories like Lee’s and Solleyn’s are the epitome of what BCF strives to do, and a validation of Ellis’ intentionality in producing the festival. Its roots come out of the deepest, darkest recesses of the black cultural experience, and further the aims of the Black Arts Movement – specifically the work of Dr. Halifu Osumare, a mentor to Ellis decades ago. But its present is both tradition-centered and Afro-futuristic, or, as Vaughan says, “Black choreographers moving into the 21st century.”
Black Choreographers Festival:
Here and Now 2017
February 11-12, Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, Oakland
February 18-19, 25-26, Dance Mission theater, San Francisco
For more information, showtimes, and tickets, visit bcfhereandnow.com