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Coming soon to Oakland: the Black Choreographers Festival

on February 11, 2019

Dance professor Julia Hughes is finishing a rehearsal in a big circle in the center of a studio. “Breathe in, breathe out,” she says. “Let’s leave all our bad energies and refresh by saying something we are thankful for!” This is the first time that her group, Tô Aí: We Are One People, will be performing as part of the Black Choreographers Festival, which is celebrating its 15th anniversary this February during the month dedicated to black history.

The festival, called “Here and Now,” brings together black choreographers from all across the Bay Area, giving them space to show their work. “It brings us together to celebrate our victories and our challenges, our emotions and passions. It’s uplifting; it’s necessary,” said choreographer Joslynn Mathis Reed from the Black Womb group, which will be presenting on the second weekend of the festival (February 23-24). The Black Womb will be performing a duet about the struggles of being a black woman in American society.

The festival will take place in San Francisco and Oakland for four consecutive weekends, from February 16 to March 10. More than 20—mostly exclusive— pieces will be presented, each lasting between 7 and 15 minutes, showing dance styles from different countries and exploring topics such as immigration or racial identity.

Tô Ai: We are One People is presenting a Brazilian story about the Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition. Choreographer Dayse Brasil, who is currently living in Bahia in Brazil, sent the choreography on a video to Hughes, the dance teacher, and the songs to her husband, Julio Remelexo. Together, they show the dancers how to perform it and organize the rehearsals. At the end of each session, they record the group and send the video back to the choreographer in Brazil.

“We want to pass emotion and show that Brazil has more dance styles than samba from Rio— that is the one that everyone knows,” said Remelexo. They will perform during the festival’s final weekend (March 9-10).

The “350 & Million Moving Targets” performance will explore the challenges of immigrants coming to the United States. The performance will mix drama with dance and depict immigrants’ journeys from the moment they leave their countries to their arrival, the challenges of passing through border control and adapting to starting a new life in a new place.

The concept that “no one leaves home if that is good place to stay” will be expressed through the dancers’ movements, which are designed to be strong statements to make the public reflect on the difficulties of immigration. This group is choreographed by Byb Channel Bibene and is a mixed group featuring black and white adult dancers, plus one child.

Rena Meyers-Dahlkamp is a dancer participating in the “350 & Million Moving Targets” piece. “We put the piece together in December and, at that time, two kids from Guatemala were separated from their family when crossing the border. Both ended up dying,” said Meyers-Dahlkamp. She is the mother of a 10-year-old that made drawings for the piece, which will mix body movement and projections in video. Choreographer Bibene asked the 10-year-old girl to help with the performance by acting out what she had drawn.

Adisa Stewart, a dancer who will also be performing in “350 & Million Moving Targets,” decided to join the group after seeing them perform at a festival and being inspired. “I remember seeing stories that I could relate as an immigrant,” he said. “I was joking around with Byb [choreographer Bibene]: ‘How can I be on the next one?’ And now I am here.”

The festival is presented by the nonprofit African & African American Performing Arts Coalition (AAAPAC), which is directed by Laura Elaine Ellis, and by K*Star Productions, which is directed by Kendra Barnes. It was inspired by the 1995 festival called Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, where both directors had a chance to perform. Ten years after the original festival, they decided to create a space for black choreographers from the Bay Area.

After the original festival, said Ellis, “All these artists were excited about what had just taken place. …  We just decided in that moment that we would build a network and we would always stay connected.”

In addition to being a place for choreographers to present their work, the festival offers a mentoring program. Every year, two or three artists are selected to join a special program through which they get help from the festival organizers when creating their work. They also learn about the administrative concerns of putting on a show. This program started as a six-month mentorship with Ellis and Barnes, but with the growth of the festival and community support, the artists now get mentored for two years. “It’s our mission, leaving a legacy to the art and culture,” said Barnes.

This year the two artists in the program are Natalya Shoaf and Frankie Lee Peterson III, who will be presenting their original work on weekend 3 (March 2-3). The festival also includes choreographers who were in that program during previous years, including Bibene, Ashley Gayle and Noah James, Shawn Hawkins, Cherie Hill, Joslynn Mathis Reed, Dazaun Soleyn and Raissa Simpson.

The ticket price ranges from $10 to $15 and can be purchased online. The first and the second weekend will occur on the Dance Mission Theater in San Francisco. The third weekend will be at SafeHouse Arts in San Francisco and the fourth weekend will be at the Laney College Theater in Oakland.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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