Dance Theatre of Harlem/Richard Alston Dance
In this episode, we explore artists inspired by events of the past. We feature Dance Theatre of Harlem and Richard Alston Dance and their interpretation of the arrival of the first Africans to Virginia in 1619.
(upbeat piano music)
- I wish I knew exactly what year it was
that the Virginia Arts Festival brought us to Norfolk,
I think it was sometime in the '80s.
So this relationship goes way back.
- 2019 is a yearlong commemoration of some of the events
that took place here in Virginia.
One of those is the first arrival of Africans to our shores.
When we were lucky enough to be invited
by the 2019 Commemoration to create
a lot of their artistic content,
one of the first artists that came to mind
was Dance Theater of Harlem.
- We wanted to celebrate the African-American presence,
the strength of women.
I had been looking at the work of a young choreographer
by the name of Claudia Schreier.
- Can we try that lift once to see if we can attempt it?
If not, then we'll put something else in.
Yeah, I think if you get your hipbone here,
then you can just hang on.
There you go, yeah.
- We were having a conversation about this commission,
the presenter in upstate New York and he said
oh there's this wonderful African-American composer
and I thought
wow, this is really perfect.
So that's how Jessie Montgomery became part of the project.
- Like where you hear one is different from where I hear one
and it makes sense movement-wise.
For two young black American women to be
creating the work together,
it's not that it hasn't been happening,
it's been happening and happening and happening
but as far as the sort of broader community's awareness
and interest in those kinds of collaborations has grown.
- [Claudia] Seven, down, two, three, four.
Lead with the hand.
- My favorite thing is seeing Claudia and Jessie
figuring out how to work to make this come together
and what choices are being made and how they're being made.
- This project specifically had a launching point
that was so profound in its history
and what it's trying to achieve that it made me look deeper
into what I was really trying to do.
Two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight,
one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
- It says the first documented Africans in Virginia
arrived here in August 1619.
It describes their ship as the White Lion,
an English privateer.
That's actually a polite word for a pirate ship.
This is where what is now the African-American community,
a huge and really important part of the American nation,
started here in such a small way.
- It was also really exciting to commission a new work
from Richard Alston Dance Company.
Richard's had a long relationship with
the Virginia Arts Festival and when we were looking
for other partners for the commemoration,
he came to mind immediately.
It has always been on the back of his mind,
the history of England and UK and their part of slavery
and he felt it had not been addressed
the way it should have been addressed,
the way it's being addressed in the United States.
- So to me, I think the powerful image
is of arriving in a very strange place,
very, very different people who don't speak any language
that you understand and they were taken on as servants,
that's what they were officially,
were they were indentured servants.
And some of them were freed, so in those early years
there must've been a sense of becoming part of a community.
And then when all the laws changed
and lifelong slavery became a reality,
then life became much harsher, much more complicated.
- He was so impressed by the Governor's School students
when he was here last time, he asked if they could be
part of the piece.
He thought it would be a really fantastic way
to pull his professional dancers working with
the Governor's School children.
For some cases, it's a life changing experience
for these young dancers.
(upbeat electronic music)
- Selena, can you go from
when you've done the long reach out there?
Shoulders come through, the arm opens, the arm reaches
and there you go.
It's all the time, she's got that really clearly.
So you don't separate the arm, the arm moves
and it makes your back move.
Dancers excite me and suddenly all the movement
comes flooding out.
I don't know where it's come from.
I know I find a language each time that somehow comes
from the back of my head and it's also come out
of the music.
So if I've made something that works, the combined strength
of people who've trained for years
and people who are still at high school,
it is going to be very, very exciting.
- Not only are we bringing in fantastic artists,
we're sending art out into the world.
So the fact that we are able to be part
of these two world premieres and that these pieces
will have lives of their own afterwards
is really, really powerful and important
for the Virginia Arts Festival.
- Being able to work on something
that is part of a larger narrative
as part of this commemoration, it really challenged me
to look beyond the project itself.
I'm grateful to VAF and to DTH for allowing me
to connect with something that pushed me further
in that direction.
- What's been exciting about watching this process,
watching the workshops, watching the student matinée
and then the public performances is to see the reaction
and to know that it's going on to the Kennedy Center
and that we'll be part of their national tour next year
and will culminate with four performances in New York
as part of their 2020 season
is really, really been rewarding.
- What was very exciting for me about this project
was coming to work with young people,
which I really enjoy doing.
They were absolutely with me and got it together
and they were fantastic.
- We're creating works that will hopefully live
for decades after this and it's really been an honor
to be part of it.
(audience cheering and applause)