SF Chronicle Jan 30, 2005 (cont'd)

Three women in particular were watching those performances with hope and excitement. Laura Elaine Ellis made her choreographic debut in that festival. Kendra Kimbrough Barnes and Shereel Washington were still students at San Francisco State. It was life-changing for me, Ellis says one recent morning over coffee, her large eyes widening. The synergy was just amazing.

Kimbrough Barnes nods her head full of braids toward the tall, stately Washington.  It was so thrilling for us to have a place to look forward to going when we finished with college. It was inspiring.

But the next year, the festival was gone.

A reduced incarnation of it popped up in Los Angeles, and a group of dancers who wanted to harness the momentum of 1995's festival banded together to create the African & African American Performing Arts Coalition, with Ellis as its leader. They produced ambitious collaborative shows. But the group was never able to get a festival back on a roll.

That started to change three years ago, when Kimbrough Barnes and Washington formed the Black Performing Arts Network and invited Ellis to speak on a community symposium.

We just looked at each other and said, 'This is it! This is our opportunity,'  Ellis says. Now, 10 years after the Bay Area's last BCM, the idea of an annual presentation of African American dancemakers is back in the bold new guise of the Black Choreographers Festival: Here & Now.  This is no feeble re-entry. Two years of planning have yielded a stellar lineup and an overwhelming array of events. The first weekend, opening Friday at Oakland's Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, ranges from the global- minded ballet of Alonzo King to the hip-hop of Housin' Authority.

The second weekend, held at San Francisco's Project Artaud Theater, offers everything from the serene aerial work of Joanna Haigood to the infectious rhythms of the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company. Two matinees feature accomplished youth companies. Two master classes give dancers the chance to study with King and with nationally renowned hip-hop innovator Rennie Harris, in town to perform at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

The buzz surrounding the festival only throws into relief just how much was lost when Black Choreographers Moving disappeared, and how keenly a festival of its kind is still needed. At that first BCM, we said,  'This just can't go away,' says Moses, whose company, Robert Moses' Kin, performs in the new festival next weekend.  I can name seven or eight folks who did BCM -- people like Bebe Miller and Donald Byrd, midlevel choreographers I didn't get a chance to see before. When that's gone, all you see is the Alvin Ailey Company or Dance Theatre of Harlem. You don't even necessarily know the people around you working at your level because you don't have that hub.  

We often work in isolated pockets, Ellis agrees. A young dancer training at the Casquelourd Center may not hear about a chance to take part in, say, ODC Theater's Pilot Series. The festival's new mentoring program, which pairs three newcomers with three veterans, could change that. Already the West Wave Dance Festival has expressed a desire to present mentor participants' work, potentially introducing them to new venues.

Then there is the vexed question of black dance as a category.  Bandied about as a genre label in the past century, black dance often lumped together forms as diverse as West African and American Jazz. The Black Choreographers Festival counters stereotypes by presenting a startling array of dance styles on each slate:  It's not the Black Dance Festival, it's the Black Choreographers Festival, Ellis says.

But it also presents a face of solidarity, and the shared ground among black choreographers is enduring and meaningful.  Some people say being a black choreographer is just an accident of birth, Moses says.  But it's not happenstance; my mother and father didn't just bump into each other and listen to certain kinds of music by chance. That's the earth, the ground your culture's born out of. But that culture has a huge breadth.

So the excitement of 10 years ago is back -- but how to make sure it stays this time? Moses has confidence in the festival's planners.  They're wonderful women and the right people to get this going, he says. Already those women have dreams of inviting choreographers from Southern California, or taking the showcase to Los Angeles -- with the caveat that they will always reserve room for Bay Area choreographers. Thanks to the grants and partnerships they've attracted, they're assured the seed money for next year's festival if tickets to its inauguration sell well.  

It had to be a movement if it was going to be anything at all, Ellis says.  And the only way it's going to continue is if it's the African American community and the arts community at large that make it happen again.

__________

2005 Black Choreographers Festival: Here & Now: Robert Henry Johnson, KKDE/Kendra Kimbrough, Lines Ballet, Robert Moses' Kin, Fua Dia Congo, Housin' Authority. 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat, 7 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland.

Dimensions Dance Theater, Joanna Haigood, KKDE, Savage Jazz, New Style Motherlode and Diamano Coura West African Dance Company. 8 p.m. Feb. 11-12, 7 p.m. Feb. 13 at Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida St., San Francisco.

The festival also presents master classes with Alonzo King and Rennie Harris, and youth company matinees. Tickets $10-$20; (415) 863-9834,

Rachel Howard is a freelance dance critic.

 

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