The Right to be Innovative: A Panel Discussion at APAP

left to right, Donna Walker-Kuhne, Abdel R. Salaam, Dr. Angela Fatou Gittens, Nai Ni Chen

I had the opportunity to moderate a very important panel last week at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference in New York. The genesis of the panel was a troubling New York Times review published May 31, 2017, about a DanceAfrica performance. The theme of the program was “The Healing Light of Rhythm: Tradition and Beyond.” The Times’ headlined its “bittersweet” review: “DanceAfrica Excels at Tradition. Why Go Beyond?”

In the review, the reporter wrote: “It was the ‘beyond’ part of the theme where things became a little tricky. Was this DanceAfrica or a Broadway tryout?” From that point forward, the reporter sought to justify her perception of why the performers should limit themselves to the “tradition and abandon” of African dance”

In this week’s blog, I am sharing some of the highlights from the panel discussion, which focused on the marginalization of the work by artists of color due to ignorance and a lack of understanding of the evolutionary and innovative rights and needs of these artists. The APAP conference audience was fortunate to hear a lively discussion from some of New York City’s leading cultural innovators: Angela Fatou Gittens, Ph.D, executive artistic director of the Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy and a dance historian, educator, linguist and performer; Nai-Ni Chen, founder and artistic director of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company and currently in residence at New Jersey City University and a principal-affiliated artist of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, and Abdel R. Salaam, Artistic Director of DanceAfrica and co-founder, executive artistic director and choreographer of Forces of Nature Dance Theatre.

 Donna Walker-Kuhne: I know the New York Times’s review is not the first time this issue has come up for you. But why now? How do we preserve the tradition and go beyond and have passion and desire to be innovative? And at the same time, how do we work with critics and presenters who  don’t understand that?

 Abdel R. Salaam: This is a central issue of how to go beyond tradition and bring innovation to the work; to take the best of our tradition and make it the best; make it even better. There is room for dance to grow, to advance the field, to develop new definitions. This is the same in all classical art forms– classical music and folk music.

The foundations of modern dance struggled with ethnicity. Who can do it? Who owns it? Does that impact a reviewer? Can he or she honestly sit and enjoy a performance by someone who they would not normally see, and enjoy that they are performing the work differently? What does that mean? This is not a Black or Asian issue; it’s dancers in the dance world. It’s the struggle between modernism and classical dance that artists, in general, have been fighting. The issue is not the review, but rather the statement that society has gotten to the point where there is a modern and post-modern tradition and it is acceptable. Yet, within the tradition of the diaspora, those things remain compartmentalized, which means there is no space to evolve.

How would this thinking have influenced the pioneers of modern dance—Ted Shawn, Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis—who broke from tradition? Why can’t companies of color have the same bandwidth? They are searching as well. They should have the same rights as those pioneers. What’s most important is respecting the process and educating the audience to appreciate and support the work as well.

It’s the expectation that a particular style of movement is expected by a specific genre, while in the dance world other styles are evolved, the expectation is to be the same, can only do african dance, can’t incorporate ballet or modern.

Nai-Ni Chen: I think it is important for the presenter and artist to develop a profile/goal of the event/production so that the public can move beyond, as well as enjoy the tradition. Years back, an audience wrote to us angrily that they did not see the dragon in our performance. We would like everyone to understand that the dragon is in every movement, and every dance. But it will not happen right away. We have to show them the dragon so they and their children can begin the journey. It is our curse and our gift.

As a society, we are so used to labeling people and putting them in a box or sticking them in a category. So, people automatically expected only traditional Chinese dance when I first began my company. I spoke with presenters about that. One asked me: “Are you traditional or modern?” And I said, “Both!” But he didn’t believe it was possible for us to perform both. We had to prove ourselves again and again.

Donna: What is the role of the presenter and their expectations? How can the presenter communicate with the artist in order to understand the interplay of tradition and innovation? How can the artist communicate this value to the presenter?

Angela Fatou Gittens: African dance techniques, as numerous, varied and diverse as they are, are not stagnant, nor are they to be seen only within a traditional lenses. This I learned from Baba Chuck (Davis) himself. He was far more than a man who merely “who made us laugh.” (as noted in the review.) He was a genius of a scholar who studied, documented, and presented African dance throughout the African continent. He spoke to me about the importance of continuing to do the same so that our traditions are not lost. Baba Chuck wanted connections to be made across the Black Atlantic, within contemporary movement techniques of the diaspora, such as African-American Hip-Hop, Brazilian Capoeira, Afro-Cuban Rumba, Haitian Vodou, and Carribean or Latin American Orisha forms.

I have learned over my short span of years in academia that there are few dance critics who know how to look at the technique of African dance, within contexts of both traditional and non-, while truly seeing its range, its offerings, and its forms as a canvas for countless narratives. For example, I am aware that within African movement and music techniques, it is insulting to say that professional percussionists “pound drums” as though they are toddlers.

Similar to a classical ballet aficionado who writes about a ballet performance, it is okay to allow a critic who truly knows African dance to give a thorough critique of a professional African dance performance. Doing the opposite is an act upon the gaze; an exercise of authority within an unknown territory. It is simply disrespectful. One should not claim to know what one does not.

Donna: How should the presenters communicate with their audiences? What responsibility do they have to frame the performances and the artists? We understand that the goal of presenters is to sell tickets. So a traditional show becomes an easier sell, such as African drummers or a Chinese ribbon dance. But how do you show them something else that is important and eye-opening?

Abdel: Within this context, I suggest that the presenter engage their community and locate an educational partner for the artist. This will not only help to prepare the community for the work but also measure the impact of the work. It also helps the touring artist to maintain a community link.

What if there is no community partner? That’s hard to imagine now days. The presenter must program based on community interest. Then perhaps the artist should visit the community to establish some kind of engagement.

Donna: How do people have access to this work that moves beyond tradition? What is the perspective and how does that impact criticism? How do you facilitate a dialogue between the artist and the community to move beyond tradition? Is this simply a matter of managing expectations?

Nai-Ni: I think curiosity is the key. On tour, the artist can best inform and entertain. The education part needs a curious mind to explore and a mentor to satisfy the curiosity. This is why the community partner is so important.

In mass media, there needs to be a dialogue between artist and writers or media producers to explore vocabularies that can set the agenda.

Abdel: I went to a conference and Marta Vega (one of the founders of the Association of Hispanic Arts and leader of The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI)) was there. The intent of the conference was to offer insights into how a Western presenter/producer can present traditional work taken from its original environment and put in a Western theatrical context, preserve its essence in the tradition, and enable a foreign audience to appreciate the value of it without seeing it as exoticism?

Educate the presenter, their team and the audience. Develop a language that will give body to the work so that they will know how to present the tradition-based work. At the same time, it’s important to codify it as a legitimate art form. That is key—language. Think about it.

Donna: Thank you so much, panel, for your thoughtful insights and recommendations. To create access to an extensive body of work by artists of color representing innovation, evolution and development requires a proactive plan as we discussed. That is how we change the dynamics that allow the artist, the presenters, the critics and the audience to grow and experience innovation in the arts.