I recently had the opportunity to interview the internationally renowned choreographer and dance legend George Faison, Ph.D. Dr. Faison began his career as a principal dancer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He launched his Broadway career in 1970, with the musical Purlie, and later became the first African-American to receive a Tony Award (1975) for best choreography for his work on the play The Wiz.
After the founding of his own company, George Faison Universal Dance Experience, Dr. Faison created several American dance classics, including “Slaves,” “Suite Otis” and “Gazelle.” He also choreographed and staged concerts for scores of musical greats, including Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Earth, Wind and Fire.
In addition, Dr. Faison is known for writing several musicals, including “Apollo, It Was Just Like Magic” and “Sing Mahalia Sing” with Jennifer Holliday. He is currently working on a musical about the late, multiple Grammy Award-winning singer Whitney Houston, titled “Whitney: The Last Interview.” He will receive the inaugural Bala Award for Excellence later this month for his international work with Lotus Music & Dance.
Donna Walker-Kuhne: You have had an amazing and robust career in the performing arts. How did you begin your work in the arts?
George Faison: Most African-American artists grow up in the church—Easter pageants, Christmas pageants, etc., conjuring images from the Bible—this also was the very beginning of my interest. The radio, the music—what we heard was so prolific and the images and voices they brought to us was another type of education.
I also went to school and gained the knowledge and understanding of how to express and explore our art—I had the honor and luxury of attending Howard University. I grew up in that environment and got a special education because I met everyone from the Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison to the Grammy-award singers Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway. Howard was our Harvard. Gospel singer Richard Smallwood, opera singer Jessye Norman, the late choreographer Ulysses Dove also went to Howard at the same time I was there. And who can forget Maryrose Reeves Allen, who was the founder and director of the physical education program at our university.
One got a world-class education meeting the renowned teachers who taught the opera singers Leontyne Price and William Warfield. I met essayist, playwright, poet and novelist James Baldwin; playwright and professor Owen Dodson , and I saw my first performance of the opera Medea’s Dance of Vengeance with Chuck Davis doing his first performance.
If you were brave enough, you could go out and find opportunities; meet people. I was not afraid. It was great growing up Black, during the tumultuous 1960s, with people who held the highest standard of education as a priority, especially the activists that I marched with, including Dick Gregory, John Lewis, Kendall Flowers, among others.
I studied with local dance teachers in Washington D.C.: Ethel Butler, Louis Johnson and the Jones-Haywood School of Dance. Howard was really the hotbed for cultivating your passion, education, as well as opportunities in the arts. My first musical theater experience was performing with the American Light Opera Company. We performed such musicals as “Kiss Me Kate,” “Showboat,” and “Annie Get Your Gun.”
I left Howard and Washington, D.C., after seeing Alvin Ailey. I moved to New York and joined Arthur Mitchell’s first incarnation of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Later I joined the Harlem based HAR-You Act and studied with the teachers and choreographers like Louis Johnson, Thelma Hill, Charles Moore, Ella Moore, Donnie McKayle and Talley Beatty.
I joined the Ailey Company when I was 20, in 1966, and toured the world until 1970 when I joined the Broadway musical “Purlie.” And between shows and any breaks I could get, I worked on my choreography. I formed my own company on April 1, 1970. And for the next 25 years, I choreographed and directed several productions on and off-Broadway, regional theater, industrial shows, movies, etc.
Donna: You have worked in film, Broadway and regional theater. Why did you establish the Faison Firehouse Theatre and why did you locate it in Harlem?
George: Before I moved to Harlem, the Clark Center, under the auspices of the Westside YWCA, was home and refuge, not only to Alvin Ailey, but to many black performers. My own company was formed at Clark Center.
I belong in Harlem. I have more than 50 years of history there. My early education was in Harlem, especially during the 1960s. Although I was originally from Washington, D.C., I decided to own my cultural legacy of Harlem when I purchased the Firehouse in 2000 along with co-founder, Tad Schnugg, who served as the Executive Director and passed away last year. I focused on the arts and Tad did the administrative part. We were together 50 years, exchanging ideas, as well as creative partners. We built this together.
The Faison Firehouse Theatre was an abandoned, old, decommissioned firehouse. So, the task was to build a cultural center that would enable me to create my vision of what a cultural organization should be—with studios, a theater, recreational spaces, meeting spaces, and exhibit spaces for art.
Donna: Where did you see you could have impact in the community? And how do you use your venue to provide access to the arts?
George: When artist and community come together a cultural explosion occurs which results in a transfer of tradition, custom and technique. The artist is a reflection of society; the community has access to the arts. Bringing experience and professionalism to Harlem has been my main objective. The objective of the Faison Firehouse Theatre over the last 20 years has been to integrate the arts with digital technology; how technology enables us to enhance our story-telling; transforming our world and touching people with our stories. Our goal is to collaborate with artists from diverse disciplines to create a new vision of how we live and communicate with each other.
Donna: How does funding and access to funding impact your work and the future of multicultural arts organizations and artists?
George: Funding support has been elusive and, in many cases, a non-existent partner to the arts for organizations like mine; organizations that have a vision of the future that goes beyond dance techniques and music analysis, in an effort to bring together a unified body that can serve the demands of this millennial generation. The old ways of promoting the arts and building capacity has to be examined in a new way—how you create it; how you promote it, and how you build it—that’s my dream. That’s why I believe we need to revive the cultural roots that Harlem so abundantly possesses, as well as look outside the community for the help.
Donna: How will The Firehouse continue to foster emerging talent and provide a home for small arts organizations and presentations?
George: I started the RESPECT project, which is a training ground for youth to gain access, knowledge and the experience needed to enter the world of work in the performing arts; the fields that require technological and business skills. We have too few administrators of color with this background.
We also have made the space available to other organizations, including Dancers for a Variable Population; Black Art in America Fine Art Show; Harlem Opera Theater; Mama Foundation for the Arts; Clark Center; Harlem Quilters; Forces of Nature Dance Theatre and Lotus Music & Dance.
Later this month, the 30th Anniversary celebration of Lotus Music & Dance will highlight the work of T. Balasaraswati. I will be participating in its gala celebration at the end of March. I choreographed a new work in collaboration with East Indian dancers who are practitioners of the kathak style—storytellers.
Donna: Thank you the incredible legacy you have created in the performing arts, which I am certain will remain an inspiration for generations to come.