Robert Moses’ Kin dancers Caitlin Kolb and Dexandro Montalvo | Credit: RJ Muna

In a conversation with Laura Elaine Ellis about the Black Choreographers Festival held Feb. 22 – Mar. 8 in San Francisco and Oakland, there is wondering and wonderment.

The wondering probes forward: How many new names of black women who died at the hands of police or were unjustly murdered must be added to the list of names called out in Andréa Spearman’s piece since Ellis first saw it in 2016? As the member of a family that has been in America for eight generations, an artist, and co-artistic director with Kendra Kimbrough Barnes of the festival, what is Ellis’s role in stimulating conversations that lead to enlightenment about the black experience in this country? Do black or brown citizens in 2020 feel they have or experience the right to speak truth to power, to claim agency, equity, equality? If they do not, what can artists do to change that equation for future generations?

j.habitus (Jhia Jackson) | Credit: Krystal Harfert

The wonderment brings Ellis to stillness; awestruck by the discipline and inventiveness displayed in a new work exploring feminism and race by Jhia Jackson, who uses the name, j.habitus, in her art practice. Of Crowns and Cages is an interdisciplinary work in which skilled, long-form structured improvisation interjects constant surprise into the solidity of sculpture, spoken word, and set movement.

Frankie Lee Peterson III | Devi Pride

Ellis is also intrigued and mystified by three choreographers grappling with issues related to spirituality and faith; reminding her and audiences of the diversity and porousness that means black choreography is not a rigid, monolithic entity. Excerpts from the evening-length mouth//full, choreographed by Gabriel Christian and Chibueze Crouch, push against stigmas and ideas involving religion and African-Americans. Yet Frankie Lee Peterson in a dance-ministry solo, embraces faith wholeheartedly, jubilantly.

“One struggles and questions religion, and the other, it’s at the center of what Peterson thinks is his being,” Ellis says about the two works. “What I’m excited about is to have the conversation about free speech and the James Baldwin quote we are using.” In the celebrated writer’s 1955 classic collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Ellis says, “It’s something that Americans need to focus on and hold dear: our constitutional rights to speak truth to power. Trump, in my opinion, is dismantling all that gives us power and truth as citizens in this country. I know this is a great threat to our democracy. Having the right to criticize our leaders, the country’s laws, things done to people, is crucial. Without that, there’s injustice.”

Justice arrives not only in possible response to this unified call to citizens, but for the festival’s artists, through increased partnerships Ellis and Barnes pursue. Ellis says natalya shoaf’s evening-length solo, a work in three parts, benefits tremendously from co-sponsorship by SAFEhouse Arts and its Resident Artist Workshop. Co-choreographed with Bianca Stephanie Mendoza, Charbel Rohayem, and Jane Selna, the residency provided workspace and extended time for development. “A contemporary modern dance that expresses work of African descent and pushes collaboration by having a solo artist working with other artists doesn’t happen often. The equity part is important because having space and time — the economics can be challenging.” Without the residency, the collective group of choreographic might not have coalesced in sheaf’s one black body. Depth and range might have been limited, never attempted, or not achieved. “Challenges of race that cross not only that race line but are issues faced by being female persons of color in this country — speaking to that doesn’t just happen in one year or from one voice, it’s partnerships that we’re taking that help with this journey,” she says.

The three-week festival also allows for variety in curation. After shoaf’s solo weekend, the second weekend at Dance Mission theater features multiple shorter works in “New Voices/New Works.” Jackson/j.habitus, also a doctoral student in sociology at UC San Francisco, writes in an email about the unique opportunity to do “what black girls are socialized not to do: dream of potential possibilities, question reality, and show vulnerability.” Materials used in the piece include a lullaby her mother sang to her, hair rebraided and used as binding, upcycled clothing hangers, pens and twine molded to form a cage-like face mask, and more. Ellis says the work’s most visceral content is created in the moment. “She’s leaving space to express something based on what she’s feeling right then and there. To keep it engaging and to surprise us continually takes great skill.”

Spearman, in the work for five women that riveted Ellis four years ago, acknowledges and illuminates the black woman’s multifaceted being, which she names as “mother, prey, victim, warrior, and change maker.” Modern women, she claims, have become by necessity their own protectors. “African-American women in America are being harassed, assaulted, and killed at the same rate as African-American men when interacting with law-enforcement agencies.

“We start movements and revolutions because we are the only ones who can. We stand our ground against these injustices, here in America and abroad. This piece flows through a voice of the Black Lives Matter movement, instrumental music from Stanley Clarke, and the resounding call of those women who have fallen by the hands of those whose job it is to protect and serve.”

Chloe Arnold | Lee Gumbs

The festival’s final weekend will take place at Mills College’s Holland Theater (not at Oakland’s Laney College Theater as originally scheduled) brings works by Kendra Barnes, Robert Moses Kin, Gregory Dawson, Raissa Simpson, and Los Angeles-based tap dancer and Emmy-nominated choreographer Chloe Arnold. “Kendra is bringing a work-in-progress, Dawson always bring premieres, Raissa probably will bring a premiere also, and I have no idea what Robert is bringing, but he’s celebrating a 25th anniversary, so I’m sure it will be something special,” says Ellis.

For an added dimension, San Francisco Dance Film Festival has partnered with BCF for the screening of several shorts. Screenings will take place before each performance of the second two weekends, Saturdays and Sundays, Feb. 29 – March 8, from 7:20 to 7:40 p.m.

Proud of the platform and exposure the festival provides for black choreographers, Ellis says, “They aren’t celebrated enough. We can be bombarded with those same images of social constructs of racism. Those constructs impact ourselves as people or color, impact our ways of being. By having African American artists come together we can remember our contributions not just to dance but contributions ranging from science to math to visual art to literature. We can celebrate ourselves. That’s why the festival should always happen. Social racism has happened over years and has led to inequity. Now, to undo it, it’s little steps in little ways. We do our part.”

Correction: Robert Moses' Kin is celebrating its 25th anniversary, not its 50th, as was originally published in this story.

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