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Dance Concert: Global Struggles for Liberation

This year’s dance concert on March 6 & 7 explores social justice as well as South Asian dance, paying tribute to Indian choreographers Chandralekha and Akram Khan, while also giving voice to the Black Lives Matter movement here at home.

“We’re exploring how we create freedom and liberation through our bodies, with a lens on South Asian dance.”- Jesse Phillips-Fein

2015 dance concertThis year’s Dance Concert explores social justice issues as well as South Asian dance, paying tribute to Indian choreographers Chandralekha and Akram Khan. Performance artists Malini Srinivasan and YaliniDream served as the resident artists to the IB Dance classes. One result was a traditional Bharatanatyam dance honoring Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of art and learning, which will be performed at the show. A second theme emerged from the students: a response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“The two elements are not as disparate as they appear,” explained Middle & Upper School Dance teacher Jesse Phillips-Fein ’97, “as they are linked through the overarching question of the show, ‘How do we crate freedom and liberation through our bodies?’ As we studied dances from South Asia we discussed colonization and decolonization, considering these concepts as both national and personal efforts for self-determination and the power to make decisions and choices about oneself, for oneself.”

The concert is also inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, of which many BFS students are actively involved. “Their powerful artistry is an embodiment of their activism and commitment, not only to black lives but also to blackness as something that matters. The movement for racial justice in the United States is connected to social movements in South Asia through shared tactics of non-violent resistance but also by recognizing that different forms of oppression are interconnected.”

2015 dance concert 2Sitting next to Jesse during a recent rehearsal break was senior Owen Edwards ’15. As an IB Dance student he was required to create an original piece for the show that involved other dancers. “This year I choreographed a piece called Hegemony,” he said. “It’s about what happens when someone wants to break free from that society. How do people react? How does it impact the future?” The six-minute piece involves seven dancers choreographed to Tony Gatlif’s moving song “Manifeste.”

Dance is a “serious passion” for Owen. “I’ve danced at BFS for four years but I also dance at Dancewave in the top company there.” Dancewave is a highly acclaimed dance company in Brooklyn that works with New York City’s top choreographers. Owen will also major in dance at either Ohio State or Goucher College, both of which have well-known dance programs. “I want to be a dancer and educator after college.”

Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond ’15, who is one of the performers in Owen’s dance, praised the piece. “The music acts as a driving force to the movement. It invites and necessitates movement. I see the dance almost as a movie.”

As an IB Dance student Jumoke has also created an original composition for the show. “I don’t consider myself a dancer but it’s a unique art form to address issues that get lost in translation when speaking,” he said. His dance is an analysis of black rage and the concept of staying sane, he explained in frank terms. “What does staying sane mean in terms of coping with Ferguson, police brutality, and keeping it all together, keeping yourself together?” he asked.

Jumoke also lamented the lack of a positive history for African-Americans the way it’s taught in schools. “You look at black Americans in history books, most of it is about slavery. You look at Africa and it’s all post-colonial destruction. My piece is about trying to cope and survive in this world.”

He has put a lot of thought and effort into the themes he wants to underscore in his dance, which involves eight performers and contains three primary elements. “First, questioning whether we’re living in a post-racial society. The second part is to a song called “Black Rage” by Lauryn Hill. The last part is an original spoken word piece about trying to vocalize black rage at BFS and how things that go on here are an example of the world at large.”

Standing next to them was Louisa Grenham ’15. She explained that another dance of Jumoke’s will be performed in the show. It will be a reprise of a dance he originally created and performed as a BFS ninth grader four years ago to the haunting song “Strange Fruit” made famous by Billie Holiday.  The mournful blues tune and its horrific imagery is a stark look at lynchings in the South. The performance will be a reunion of the original four dancers as well, including Louisa. “It’s a piece people still talk about,” she said. “We had also performed it at the 92nd Street Y, it got a lot of exposure.”  Eighth grader Alyssa W. has also choreographed a piece to that song so they decided to combine the two.

“It’s still relevant,” added Jumoke. “It’s about Trayvon Martin and modern day lynchings.”

Louisa is in IB Theater but agreed to come in at the 11th hour to the dance concert as a favor to Jumoke. She has been accepted to Swarthmore College. “I want to do something with gender and sexuality studies,” she said. “Something with a social justice basis.”

Calli Thomas-Siegel ’15, an IB Dance student who also performs in Strange Fruit, also created a whimsical, environmentally-themed duet called Vesuvius. “It’s destructive but beautiful,” she said, “and makes lots of use of lights.”

The dance concert is BFS’ largest production every year and often its most complicated. The technicalities of smoothly staging a massive event for multiple performances could be disastrous were it not for Jonathan Bach ’15, a near-professional production stage manager.  “The worst thing you can do is stop the show,” he said. “To an extent we maintain its artistic integrity. You can really see it come to life.”

This is his third year stage managing the dance concert but for senior year he’s also taking the rare step of performing in it. And it’s the first time he’s had an assistant. During act one while he is onstage, sophomore Sophia L. will be running the board.

“We’ll be talking about it for a long time after its over,” Jesse said of this year’s show in particular. “The class of 2015 is a remarkable community of artists who have left a lasting mark on the BFS Dance program and dance community. They’re our first IB Dance cohort to all be enrolled in the course at the Higher Level of assessment and the first to have a majority of boys. They share a profound love and dedication to each other’s growth.”

Jumoke expressed similar sentiments. “It’s relevant. The world seems darker because of social media. Art is a good way to work through that. Visually it’s appealing and emotionally it’s therapeutic.”

Calli stressed that it’s also, lest we forget, entertaining. “It’s always nice to see how young people can take what they want and portray how they’re feeling. It’s just fun to see.”