PLATFORM 2012: Parallels, Present-Past-Present. Carl Paris on week one of Parallels.
February 8, 2012
On February 2nd, and with much buzz and excitement, Danspace Project and The Studio Museum in Harlem presented The Artist’s Voice: Ishmael Houston-Jones in Conversation with Wangechi Mutu and Thomas Lax, the first of its eight-week series PLATFORM 2012: Parallels. Held at The Studio Museum of Harlem to a packed audience, the event marked the 30th Anniversary of Houston-Jones’s ground breaking Parallels, which featured then emergent black postmodern dance choreographers at Danspace Project in 1982 and toured Europe in 1987. Thursday’s event provided a rare opportunity for Houston-Jones to converse with visual artist Ms. Mutu and curator Mr. Lax about key aspects of his work and issues surrounding the notion of black postmodern dance, as well as inaugurate PLATFORM 2012, which will feature a diverse line-up of performances, discussions, and screenings by veteran and emergent black postmodern choreographers over the months of February and March 2012.
So why convene a series dedicated to black postmodern dance? What do we mean by black postmodern dance? What kinds of issues might black postmodern dancers address? These are pertinent questions not only because of the relevance they might have today, but also because, despite the success of many of its participants over the years, the black postmodern dance perspective as a whole has received little attention as a source of academic and historical discourse. Hence, as a dance researcher who has closely followed black postmodern dance and many of its artists and as the writer-in-residence for this series Parallels, I use this introductory blog to engage selected issues that Houston-Jones raises about past and present.
In the 1982 program note, Houston-Jones writes: “Parallels was chosen as the name for the series because, “. . . while all the choreographers participating are Black and in some ways relate to the rich tradition of Afro-American dance, each has chosen a form outside of that tradition and even outside the tradition of mainstream modern dance.” Houston-Jones’ aim was to emphasize that “to be a contemporary Black dance maker, one did not have to be a direct descendant of the
Alvin Ailey tradition,” and, therefore, what he then called “a new generation of black artists . . . [could] exist in the parallel worlds of Black America and of new dance.” Houston-Jones saw “parallels” as a framework to bring together like-minded experimental black choreographers and explore possibilities beyond the hegemony of mainstream concert dance traditions (black and white), which seemed to limit what African Americans could or should do.
Having trained in colleges and performed or worked with postmodern choreographers, this new generation was invested in a radically insurgent and individualistic approach that secured their positions as independent artists; and they created in a time and politics that challenged reductive constructions of race, gender, identity and representation. Previewing the touring version of Parallels in 1987 (titled Parallels in Black), dance critic Elizabeth Zimmer describes them thusly:
“While each of the six ‘Parallels’ choreographers is a distinct individual . . . . all of them are college educated with degrees ranging from theatre, literature, communications and the visual arts to graduate studies in dance. All are interested in multimedia projects, especially in combining text with dance . . . . They tend to work collaboratively, respecting and drawing on the resources of performers with whom they share the stage. And they have tended to be engaged with, or at least conscious of, the political forces which shape their lives.”
These qualities reflected the postmodern dance scene in the early 1980s, which itself was undergoing changes from its earlier minimalist, task-oriented aesthetic, and was moving toward expressive social commentary and autobiography. The black postmodern stance did not come without political conflict. Association with what was for all intents and purposes, a white-led downtown scene—which for some blacks seemed unwelcoming—placed some of the black postmodern choreographers in tension with certain sectors of the black community, which saw them as ethnic and cultural “sell outs.” Choreographers Gus Solomons jr. Ralph Lemon, and Bill T. Jones, to name just three, have talked openly about such tensions. (It should be noted that these tensions also arose because of some public statements they made at the time in rejection of traditional “black dance” and also in the context of 1970s nationalist sentiments that called for black solidarity and unity [see Paris, “The Africanist Presence in the Postmodern dance milieu” 2001].) But the underlying issue here is that, in dealing with their identities as African Americans in a white postmodern world, they also had to deal with it as a critical part of their artistic processes.
This is expressed in various ways by some of the original participants of Parallels in Zimmer’s article (1987). Bebe Miller states that she did not feel “the need to reflect the black experience, other than her own,” but adds that “if you look closely it is there.” She further states that her work is essentially concerned with “the shifting balance between highly abstracted movement and evocative personal gesture.” In the same article, Ralph Lemon states: “I think of myself as being pretty colourless . . . I am colourblind [sic.]—I want people to go beyond the sense that I’m a black choreographer and receive the universal messages. I am trying to convey about love, pain, fear, hatred, other father family.” Houston-Jones and Fred Holland both state that their work is specifically autobiographical and that they consciously explore issues of race, sex, and sexuality. And Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who was the one who most explicitly infused African and African American culture with text and non-traditional modes of expression, sought both to “get beyond a black nationalist heritage and begin to explore aspects of her heritage. We might consider, then, that it was not that they rejected their blackness as some would accuse, for they were keenly aware that they brought their black bodies and cultural experiences with them.
It was that they rejected what they saw as an effort to pigeonhole them simply because they were black.
But, then, times, attitudes, and expectations also change. Since the 1980s, uptown dance has integrated postmodern strategies, and downtown dance has become more mainstream. Also, more African Americans create in the downtown scene, more African Americans are part of the audiences, and notions of black representation have also evolved. Reflecting on his early career, Bill T. Jones—who is not in this series—acknowledges that quite often he did not accept the notion of black dance or being labeled “a black choreographer” (see Wallace, “Constructing the Black Masculine,” 2002). Today he embraces these propositions. Similarly, by the 1990s, Bebe Miller had begun to explore her black female identity in works like Rhythm Studies (1999) and Ralph Lemon explored African and African American culture and identity in his Geography trilogy (1995-2005). So my point here is to suggest that these evolutions reflect a larger dialectic, past and present, about what is black dance and what is black representation; and that this dialectic can be instructive and generative in our discourses around art, politics, and representation across time and genres. Houston-Jones’s current discussion on the concept of “black dance” helps me make this point.
In the PLATFORM 2012: Parallels catalogue—which, I hasten to say, is a beautifully edited and illustrated document—Houston-Jones asks a series of questions: “Does ‘Black Dance’ exist? And assuming it does, what defines it? Is the term ‘mainstream Black Dance’ an oxymoron? What would it mean to push beyond its mainstream if it does exist?” As Houston-Jones makes clear, these questions are not exclusive to him and they are not new. Indeed, the term “black dance” gained currency among dance writers and cultural workers as the pioneering work of choreographers, such as Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Talley Beatty, Donny McKale, Alvin Ailey and Eleo Pomare solidified a mode of concert dance that foregrounded the musical and expressive practices of the black experience, and also reflected the political and aesthetic revolution of its time spurred by the Civil Rights, Black Liberation, and the Black Arts movements. Their approaches—which I will call black dance—ranged from assimilationist to nationalistic, from celebratory to subversive, all in their own way critiquing the hegemony of European aesthetic value. As such, the notion of black dance became on the one hand a source of pride and affirmation, analogous, in many ways, to affirmations of “soul power,” and “black is beautiful.” On the other hand, the term became a source of debate, as Houston-Jones demonstrates in the following list, to which he credits Takiyah Nur Amin’s “Terminology of Difference: Making the Case for Black Dance in the 21st Century and Beyond” (2011):
Katherine Dunham who asserts “Black Dance [is] simply the dance forms of people of African origin” (Dunham 1988, as cited in Houston-Jones’ “Curatorial Statement”); Theresa Ruth Howard who contends that “Black dance is a term that sets the doers apart as separate and unequal in artistic validity” and “the work created by African Americans is too diverse to be compartmentalized and uniformly labeled” (Theresa Ruth Howard, in the February 2008 issue of Dance Magazine); Zita Allen who characterizes the term “‘black dance’ as a haphazard label employed by critics but as a perfunctory funding mechanism utilized to secure grant dollars for Black choreographers as well” (Allen in 1988 article, “What is Black Dance?”); and Bill T. Jones who proclaims that Black Dance is “any dance that a person who is black happens to make” (cited in Houston-Jones’s essay, this latter statement is noteworthy both for its overarching simplicity and because its author actually spent much his career denying there was such thing as black dance).
While Houston-Jones goes on to problematize the genealogical implications of the views on black dance and by extension its significance to today’s discourse, my point in citing these perspectives is to more directly underscore that the term “black dance” infers a complex set of theoretical and practical considerations, which perhaps do not lend themselves to a definitive lexical or terminological construct, but, nevertheless, capture a certain set of social, cultural, aesthetic, and existential conditions that make black dance a discernible reality in practice. Here, I follow Houston-Jones in citing Amin, who offers a useful and forward looking perspective on the topic. She asks “what is the relevance of the term ‘Black Dance’ [sic.] in the 21st century, and . . .beyond?” (2011, 11) Then she argues persuasively that “for Black People [sic.] in this period of postmodern existence, typified by the dissolution of cultural metanarratives, necessitates that the term Black Dance and all ancillary terms related to it are interrogated, but not excluded from use” (ibid.). Along similar lines, I argue that it is not merely a matter of whether there is a “black dance,” but a matter of why the question exists. In a sense, the very necessity and process of answering that question justifies the use of the term.
Consider for example that from the moment a person “discovers” he or she is black, the question about what that means becomes a complex existential one, inexorably informing what one does and how one sees the world. For the artist, specifically, it is through the questioning, the exploring, the affirmation of self and culture through the expressive body in relation to the wider culture that black dance becomes a site of discourse, even if not completely reducible. For this reason, I have always been troubled by Zita Allen’s dismissal of black dance as a haphazard label employed by critics, although her thesis can be appreciated from a critical and literary standpoint. I also reject the notion that black dance is any dance that the black body does, as Bill T. Jones suggests. Such an assertion can only make sense if we specify that we are talking about what we are projecting onto the body irrespective of the dance’s and/or dancer’s intent. Eager to embrace the notion of black dance, then, I start by echoing Katherine Dunham: “. . . black dance is the dance forms of people of African origins” (cited in Houston-Jones) but I add that it is also an intellectual/performative approach that reflects on (through autobiography, style and the body in motion) and/or explicitly represents aesthetic, cultural, or thematic elements specific to the black experience. This certainly can include black postmodern dance.
I don’t attempt here to address all of Houston-Jones’ questions, but that, too, is the point. As he put it on Thursday night, PLATFORM 2012: Parallels provides the opportunity to see how these questions hold up—or not—as the many veteran and emerging artists bring their work to this exciting series.
Carl Paris, PLATFORM 2012: Parallels writer-in-residence, holds a Ph.D. in Dance and Cultural Studies (Temple University) and a Masters in Dance Education (NYU). He has performed major roles with Olatunji African Dance, Eleo Pomare, Martha Graham, and Alvin Ailey. He taught in Spain and received the Dance Association of Madrid Award in 1995. He has published articles on blacks in modern dance and he is working on a book of essays that will examine connections between black dance aesthetics, and individual representations of race, culture, gender, and sexuality. He currently teaches courses in Africana Studies, Race and Ethnicity, and Dance History and Theory.
Amin, Takiyah Nur. (2011, September). “A Terminology of Difference: Making the Case for Black Dance in the 21st Century and Beyond.” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol 4, no. 6, 7-17.
Houston-Jones, Ishmael. (2012). “Curatorial Statement.” Danspace Project, PLATFORM 2012 Catalogue.
Wallace, Maurice O. (2002). Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men’s Literature and Culture 1775-1995. Durham NC, Duke University Press.
Zimmer, Elizabeth. (1987, Spring). “Parallels in Black.” Dance Theatre Journal. 5-7.