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Pivoting to a reimagined stage

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By Sabrina L. Miller

Black dance long has been at the forefront of innovation and expression, through the Black Arts Movement, born of 1960s social and political upheaval, to today’s social and political upheaval. In Chicago, Black dance companies always have played an integral role in the cultural and artistic landscape.

Now, amid the arts’ slow but ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project (CBDLP) is furthering that history in a way that illustrates so much of the Black experience in America: by adapting, surviving and thriving against the odds.

With creative, COVID-adapted programming, and a new strategic program manager in well-known choreographer and Chicago native Princess Mhoon, the eight-company cohort is advancing its mission to promote greater exposure, equity, capacity and sustainability for Black dance makers in the city. In the process, it’s serving as a model of collaboration for Black dance as a whole.

“The project is currently in full operation, despite COVID,” said Mhoon, who was appointed in March. “There were clear missions and a clear vision for capacity building and programming.”

CBDLP, a collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, is comprised of Ayodele Drum and Dance, Chicago Multicultural Dance Center, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Forward Momentum Chicago, Joel Hall Dancers & Center, Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, Najwa Dance Corps, and Red Clay Dance Company.

As COVID restricted performing spaces and audiences, the organizations quickly rethought their normal in-person programming, going digital and outdoors. A signature program, the Legacy Conversation Series, went virtual, as did a monthly master-class series with instructors from each CBDLP organization.

The creativity and spontaneity were on display in “Black,” a six-minute performance at Sherman Park, which featured several CBDLP companies and powerfully manifested the frustration, rage, and ultimate hope that followed the George Floyd murder. Click below to watch the video.

“I am super excited about how the members of this project have shifted and supported each other during this time,” said Emily Hooper Lansana, the Logan Center’s community arts director.

The collaboration also includes all-inclusive dance training, organizational development, networking, and cooperative marketing and communications – all pivotal as the member organizations adapted and reimagined their work.

The CBDLP project was inspired by a 2019 report, Mapping the Dance Landscape in Chicagoland, an exhaustive review of Chicago-based dance companies, which confirmed that Black companies faced deep and historic funding inequities. CBDLP works in partnership with the University of Chicago Office of Civic Engagement’s Community Programs Accelerator.

Below, the companies talk about the past year, how they’ve adjusted, and how the collaboration has helped.

AYODELE DRUM & DANCE

“We’ve learned how to maintain a semblance of community and provide a version of healing dance through Zoom. Through working with videographers and editors, we’re discovering new ways to tell stories through dance. … We’ve found ourselves performing and recording outdoors in parks, by sculptures, in underpasses and a variety of other places.” Mashaune Hardy, Business Manager

CHICAGO MULTICULTURAL DANCE CENTER

“We as the Black Dance Legacy Project have gone from competition to contribution, and that is important. That needs to be known. We are here to work together. We are here to change lives. … Never in the history of any city have you had this many African American dance companies doing what we are doing. That alone needs to be recognized, celebrated, and sustained.”Homer Bryant, artistic director

DEEPLY ROOTED DANCE THEATER

“It is through these new relationships that new audiences were introduced to Deeply Rooted and general needs (rehearsal space, etc.) were able to be leveraged. … (The experience) has forced us as artists to ‘go inward,’ looking to our personal reflections as creative inspirations. The creative process has taken on a deeper, more intimate and personal dimension.” – Nicole Clarke-Springer, Artistic Director

FORWARD MOMENTUM CHICAGO

“Forward Momentum Chicago utilized recorded dances to create video montages of student’s individual dances that represent performances that can be shared with families, friends, and community. … Having the opportunity to share ideas, present performance and master classes allowed the group to (stay) connected and visible within the dance community.” – Pierre Lockett, Executive Director

JOEL HALL DANCERS & CENTER

“The collective healing through projects like the CBDLP has a farther-reaching impact than when we work in segregation. We are not meant to be separate. We are social and communal. Jazz dance came from conversation. A conversation where every voice has value. There is power in these collective conversations.”Jacqueline Sinclair, Artistic Director

MUNTU DANCE THEATRE OF CHICAGO

“We used virtual programming early in the shutdown, but we were missing resources to make it as immersive as we would need it to be. So, I thought, let’s take it back to the basics; let’s go outside. Going into open air and teaching class or rehearsing gave a sense of our roots and getting in touch with nature and being a positive element in the community.” – Regina Perry-Carr, Artistic Director

NAJWA DANCE CORPS

“Moving forward, I see outside venues for the summer, going into the colder months I still see the need for virtual representation. … Being virtual allows many freedoms that "live performances" don't. Such as retakes, blending performances, different backgrounds, different places, etc. – Sheila Walker Wilkins, Executive Director

RED CLAY DANCE

“This collaboration has helped deepen my connection to the black dance community in Chicago and affirms that we are stronger together. … It has been really good in that way, to remind us to stop and TALK to one another. Find out what is going on, because when you talk, you build genuine trust, which is what we need the most in our communities right now. Us trusting Us! – Vershawn Sanders-Ward, Artistic Director & CEO

The Joyce Foundation has supported the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project since 2019.

About The Joyce Foundation

Joyce is a nonpartisan, private foundation that invests in evidence-informed public policies and strategies to advance racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation in the Great Lakes region.

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