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Black History Month raises troubling questions about the marketing of dance

What happens when art of a non-Western culture is taken out of its original cultural context and presented to an audience cultivated on American traditions?

For audiences, it seems, a tension is created that leads to purposeful dialogue about the collection and presentation of art outside of its own sphere.

For institutions that present them, the performance is often framed in a colonial discourse about ‘discovery” and “entertainm­ent.” In a city where, according to the 2000 census, about a third of the population is black, there is still a surprising divide, made enormously clear in a weekend of contrasting performances by Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, presented by 651 Arts at the BAM Harvey Theater on February 11, and Vincent Mantsoe, at Dance Theater Workshop February 10 through 12.

In Brooklyn, the audience was homegrown, people familiar with the work, the artist and the content. They were there to participate, not just be spectators. There were there to harmonize, not exoticize, and, as ever, the great dancing and choreography, greatest of all in “Grace,” the evening’s closing act, was a celebration of African American-ness, on stage and off.

Meanwhile, at DTW, South African Vincent Mantsoe performed two solos, one a ritualistic trance dance in which he seemed to channel his Zulu ancestors, and one playful dance with water in which he charmingly splashed the audience. Mantsoe is an engaging performer and his choreography is solid; this is not a criticism of his craft. But in that theater, with that audience, the work was disturbing on an institutional level. Unlike the work of Brown or Reggie Wilson or Gabri Christa, who have shown their cultural-crossing work at DTW, this was completely foreign—and that feature was marketed as a premium.

I have no interest in discouraging the presentation of international black artists at non-culturally specific venues, but perhaps some more care is needed as to how they are presented. It is a bit prickly that it’s Black History Month to begin with. New York presenters are not well known for presenting a representative roster of artists any way you slice it—but what institution anywhere is? Still, the contrasts between the two performances should serve as a wake-up call to reevaluate and stop taking certain things for granted.

New York CIty has Ailey and Dance Theater of Harlem, for whom Manstoe has choreographed, as well as two presenting organizati­ons—Aaron Davis Hall at CCNY in Harlem and 651 Arts in Brooklyn—whose priority is to show work by African-American artists. But these organizations don’t work with each other; in fact, they compete, and black artists as well as black audiences—and audiences in general—suffer for it.

Unless you count the fledgling Dance Harlem, founded by Robin Staff and Tamara Greenfield and presented with the public face of George Faison, New York has no black dance festival. Oddly enough, Dance Harlem’s performance was Dancenow/NYC’s most well attended event. No cultural institutions support it with the exception of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which is odd given their priorities, but odd in a good way. Aaron Davis Hall has expressed interest in working with Dance Harlem on future events, which would make sense. Whether other institutions will contribute their support remains to be seen.

The exhibition of cultural work outside of its indigenous context remains problematic even in the global village. Racism is not over. Program notes and public talks are great, and the more information that an audience can be given the better. But care must still be taken in making curatorial decisions. Ron Brown and Pam Green deserve credit and praise for building their audience and getting them to the performance, as 651’s interim executive director Georgiana Pickett acknowledged at the show.

But what efforts did DTW make to get some of the same audience to see Vincent Mantsoe? A flier slipped into the 651 program looks good on one level, but it seems like too little too late. On another level, it looks like targeted marketing to a captive audience. If DTW—or Jacob’s Pillow or any venue—really wants to reach out to black audiences, it is going to take more than Gabri, Reggie, Andrea and Vincent. The question here is, will they?

There’s an opportunity to make a real difference. But people have got to start working together.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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