Event: Dance/NYC 2016 Symposium

by Julia Purcell

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Written by Julia Purcell for THE ARTISTS FORUM MAGAZINE
Edited by
Christopher Duggan

5 out of 5 stars


NEW YORK, NY (February 29, 2016) Yesterday, Dance/NYC held a symposium at Gibney Dance (280 Broadway) from 9:00AM – 6:00PM to discuss how to make the dance world more accessible and equal with some of the field’s top players.

The event kicked off with a conversation between Dance/NYC’s Executive Director Lane Harwell and Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, a grant-making organization focused on “combating global inequality.” Walker explained the organization’s commitment to the arts, speaking to the power that they can have for marginalized people. “We should be radical in our view that we don’t need to justify the arts, that the arts are intrinsic to our civilization,” said Walker. “Poor people need beauty. Poor people need ways to not think about being poor.”

Walker, however, did admit that dance is not a perfect medium and that groups like people of color and disabled folks are often marginalized within the field. “When we are confronted with counter-narratives of beauty and excellence… that’s disruptive,” he said of those who are pushing norms in the dance world. “What I want Ford to do is to move those things that are often at the margins to the center.”

The crowd listens to Lane Harwell and Darren Walker’s discussion at the Dance/NYC 2016 Symposium
Dance/NYC Executive Director Lane Harwell
Ford Foundation President Darren Walker
Attendee addresses Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and Dance/NYC Executive Director Lane Harwell

This theme of re-centering disregarded narratives was constant throughout the day. The Heidi Latsky Dance Company, whose work deals with “disability and redefining virtuosity,” performed a beautiful living installation, in which dancers dressed in all white glided and stretched slowly in a sun-drenched room. A panel on race and philanthropy featured philanthropic heavyweights from organizations like the Mellon Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation among others, all discussing how they can use their power and funds to better marginalized peoples, while also checking their own practices.

 The most anticipated event of the day was the conversation between Misty Copeland, the first black principle ballerina at the American Ballet Theater, and Virginia Johnson, a groundbreaking founding member at Dance Theatre of Harlem who now returns to the company as Artistic Director. The respect and admiration that the two dancers had for each other was palpable. “There wouldn’t be a Misty Copeland without a Virginia Johnson,” said Copeland to thunderous applause.

Misty Copeland (American Ballet Theater) and Virginia Johnson (Artistic Director, Dance Theatre of Harlem) speak at the 2016 Symposium
Audience members listen to the discussion at the Dance/NYC 2016 Symposium at Gibney Dance
Misty Copeland and Virginia Johnson address the audience at the Dance/NYC 2016 Symposium at Gibney Dance

The combination of the two generations resulted in a fascinating multi-layered conversation, covering each dancer’s struggles growing up and training as black dancers. “I trained my whole life to be a ballet dancer and then found out no one was going to hire me. Through Arthur Mitchell’s [founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem] hard work and mission, we got to define who we are. There was this opportunity to finally do what you wanted to do,” said Johnson. Copeland’s own struggle culminated similarly, with a transformative experience with famed dancer Debbie Allen: “[I was] surrounded by people that looked like me.”

The two extended the conversations from their specific stories to speak to larger issues of equality within the dance world. “First, to be a dancer, there has to be passion, talent, and there has to be this ‘nothing is going to stop me’ spirit. We have to give up that idea that you look like a ballerina dancer and then we’ll work with you,” said Johnson. “One of the things we do have is a Misty Copeland, who has completely captured people’s imaginations of what is possible.”

Some of Copeland’s final words perfectly encapsulated the sentiments of the day: “In my mind, this is the reason that I’m here. I had natural talent, but I think it’s my work ethic. I’m constantly reminding myself that we have the powers as individuals to be who we are and who we want to be.”

For more information about Dance/NYC, visit: dance.nyc

Attendee engages in discussion during the Dance/NYC 2016 Symposium at Gibney Dance
Dance/NYC Board Member Alice Sheppard and Dance/NYC Disability Task Force Board Member Simi Linton engage in discussion
Choreographer Francis Patrelle and ABT Trustee Judith M. Hoffman discuss the days events at the Dance/NYC 2016 Symposium

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