You don't need a recap of the news to know that race has been a heated topic in St. Louis of late. It can be difficult to make sense of the tension gripping the city in the wake of the Ferguson protests and even more difficult to know how to begin to address it. But rather than skirt the subject, some choreographers in Dance St. Louis' latest presentation are facing it head on — with a trio of pieces that both honor prominent black lives that began in the St. Louis area and, in examining their work, tackle everything from war to gun violence.
Dance St. Louis' annual production, "New Dance Horizons," has been a staple in the non-profit dance presenter's seasonal lineup since 2012, pairing nationally recognized choreographers with local dance companies to create one big show of world premieres. This year's rendition, "New Dance Horizons IV," narrows the spotlight even further to celebrate legendary black artists with roots in St. Louis. Three nationally renowned African-American choreographers each created a piece, with one or more local icons serving as inspiration.
One such choreographer is New Yorker Bebe Miller, a Bessie Award winner who choreographed "Line Up Low Down" for St. Louis' Modern American Dance Company. The piece is influenced by Miles Davis, the jazz great born in Alton, Illinois. Miller, who is working with Davis' music for the first time, said in a press release that the trumpeter's groove "is a constant reminder of how to seize the moment."
The program also includes three alumni of the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the New York-based modern dance company named after its founder, a prominent black dancer and activist. Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Kirven Douthit-Boyd and Alicia Graf Mack all danced for Alvin Ailey but now reside in St. Louis. Modern dance pioneer Dianne McIntyre choreographed a piece featuring the trio and an ensemble of local dancers, "When We Come to It," which was inspired by St. Louis-born Maya Angelou.
It includes the music of St. Louis trumpeter/composer Lester Bowie as well as a reading of Angelou's poem, "A Brave and Startling Truth." Eight dancers, as well as the speaker reciting the poem, were cast at an audition in September that gave locals an opportunity to work with the top choreographer.
Of McIntyre, Graf Mack says, "She has been so wonderful, not only with Antonio, Kirven and I, but with the ensemble of dancers. Most of them are young, just starting their professional work, and so I think that they're having a great time working with her, and it's just an amazing opportunity."
So how do you tackle a poem that takes on war, and even the cosmos, through dance? Graf Mack explains, "With the imagery that is evoked through the words, [McIntyre] started to created movement and reflect the tone and the mood and the spirit of Maya Angelou's work."
The show's third choreographer, Robert Moses, took inspiration not just from the lives of great St. Louisans, but also from the dancers he was working with. When you set out to create a piece, he notes, you walk into a room of adults with their own histories and life experiences.
"The first thing I like to do is to begin to pull out of them what it is that they can do, rather than just give them what it is that I want them to feel," Moses says. "And then we'll end up with something that is more satisfying, something that is richer than what I'd feel on my own."
The founder of San Francisco-based dance company Robert Moses' Kin and a Stanford University choreographer-in-residence, Moses created "Gunshots/Daffodils/Moans/Still" for the Big Muddy Dance Company. The work's sound and musical inspiration come from St. Louis cultural legends, including gospel singer and preacher Rev. Cleophus Robinson and comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, as it takes on loaded topics such as violence and loss.
Moses says his goal is less about trying to proscribe a solution and more about putting the subject on the table — or, in this case, the stage.
"I don't want to walk into someone's home and say that this is what's happening, this is what you should do about it," Moses says. "It's not like that at all. It's that it's something that is in the air right now that we need to consider and think about, and arts is one of the ways to do that."
"New Dance Horizons IV" isn't simply about entertainment. As Moses explains, it's so much more.
"It's about, I think, the rich culture of St. Louis. It's about what has happened, about what's happening now. It's about where things will be going. It's about supporting local arts....really fantastic performers and artists working at the top of their game. It's about hearing fantastic music. It's about being in conversation with other people in the audience between pieces about what you've just seen."
Adds Graf Mack, "I think dance is one of the greatest ways to touch the human spirit. And when talking about black history and black culture, I really do think that celebrating the arts within our community is one of the best ways to honor the legacy of these wonderful leaders of our community."