Spotlight on Two Emerging Dance Scholars – Jackie Kosoff and Jamelaih Cunningham

[On April 28, 2017, two senior Dance majors, Jackie Kosoff (mentored by Dr. Neil Baldwin), and Jamelaih Cunningham (mentored by Dr. Elizabeth McPherson), presented papers at Session A of the Montclair State University Student Research Symposium: Gender Images and Political Commentary in Arts and Media. The Creative Research Center www.montclair.edu/creativeresearch is delighted to publish the two essays herewith.]

 

The Intersectionality of Feminism and Dance, by Jackie Kosoff

I am a twenty-two year old, Caucasian, working-class woman from South Central Pennsylvana who is currently studying dance in college. I introduce myself with these labels as an explanation of where I come from causing me to see the world the way I do, integral to the standpoint feminism theory.  I grew up surrounded by sisters and a strong, divorced mother which was part of my early belief that I was a feminist, although now I know I had nearly no understanding of the full weight of that word. My lived experience as a dancer and woman has strengthened my understanding and role in feminism as it pertains to the vital concept of intersectionality, “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”

This term, created by civil rights activist and scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, is often used in tandem with feminism. Crenshaw elaborates upon the necessity of intersectionality in her work, Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity, Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color: “It highlights the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed.”

I have grown to realize the interconnected nature of my own social categorizations and identities through my lived experience as a dancer and feminist. I started studying dance seriously at the age of sixteen when I attended an arts high school in inner-city Harrisburg in 2011. I danced, learned, and created with students of different races, cultures, and socioeconomic standings. I began not only to understand the way people other than myself viewed the world, but also the way the world made them feel.

I entered Montclair State University as a freshman dance major in the fall of 2013. College influenced me as a student, dancer, artist, and woman as I continued to experience people who were different than myself as we got to know each other by communicating nonverbally with the art of dance. I started to understand that my feeling of my classmates’ oppressions and struggles that I did not personally face had a name: empathy. In that regard, the recent study “Engagement in dance is associated with emotional competence in interplay with others” by a team of Swedish dance scholars points out that “Dance is a fundamental form of human emotional expression … Dance activity and training seems to be involved in the body’s emotional interplay with others. There’s a more developed awareness of emotional processing and higher ability to interpret the emotions others in dancers than in non-dancers.” I also grew as a “thinking dancer,” in that I became more knowledgeable and articulate about my art.

I took part for the past three years in a highly-selective workshop seminar for dance majors, Danceaturgy, where we conceptualized what we physicalized by writing, speaking, and advocating for our art form. I began studying the Limon technique of modern dance in the 2015-2016 school year and this way of movement led me to change not only how I move but also how I approach dance on a personal and emotional level. The sensitivity of the technique allowed me to become a more open mover and person.

This deeply rooted connection was the breakthrough of intersectionality in my life. I felt a strengthening in my artistic voice as a dancer, I also felt a strengthening in my political voice. My growth was blurring lines between the different parts of my life and bringing them together.  2016 was also the first year I was eligible to vote in an election and took the opportunity to do so, as I felt that my singular voice was necessary. Pertinent to my political voice is the article “Intersectionality and Feminist Politics” by scholar Nira Yuval-Davis, who mentions Radhika Coomaraswamy, a special rapporteur of the UN Secretariat on violence against women. Coomaraswamy spoke at the World Conference Against Racism where “the term ‘intersectionality’ had become tremendously popular and was used in various UN … forums.” This subsequently led to the 58th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, where the resolution on the human rights of women stated in its first paragraph that it ‘recognized the importance of examining the intersection of multiple forms of discrimination, including their root causes from a gender perspective. ‘(Resolution E/CN.4/2002/L.59)”  I realized that, for me, intersectionality within politics allows for an evolution that crosses boundaries of social locations and identities.

During this past school year, I performed in a new work by Christian von Howard which centers on a coven of five witches, entitled to the teeth. Not only did the piece investigate the mysticism of darkness, it specifically focused on a group of powerful women. This choreography and theme allowed me to explore the power I have as a woman, even in a mystical and fictional sense while articulating it through my movement and performance.

When I look back now, as a senior, on my journey of intersectionality, one of my first memories from college was taking a freshman level writing course and tentatively raising my hand to the question “Who here is a feminist?” Very few others around me did the same. This question played an important early role in establishing the interconnectedness of dance and feminism for me. Scholar Anthea Kraut articulates the unity of dance with feminism in Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance: when she says, so powerfully, that  “… gender never functions in isolation from other axes of difference.”

Citations

Bojner Horwitz, E., Lennartsson, A. K., Theorell, T. P., & Ullen, F. (2015) Engagement in dance is associated with emotional competence in interplay with others. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1096.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991): 1241. Web.

Kraut, Anthea. Choreographing Copyright: Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property Rights in American Dance. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2016. Print.

Yuval-Davis, N. “Intersectionality and Feminist Politics.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 13.3 (2006): 193-209. Web.

 

* * * * * * * * * *

 

Dance as a Social Comment: Alvin Ailey’s ‘Masekela Langage,’

by Jamelaih Cunningham

Masekela Langage was choreographed in 1969 by Alvin Ailey after returning from a trip to South Africa. Ailey wanted to capture the similarities between apartheid in South Africa and the race riots in Chicago in 1968. This dance also holds sonority today in a time that often feels like the loudest voices are undermining the importance of human, civil, and equal rights. Ailey said that Masekela Langage is “a ballet about people who are ruined” with no hope and fear of no way out. (Interview, 1969). He wanted to create a decaying world full of used up people and old decaying furniture. In an interview with Ailey in 1969, he says that “langage” is a French word that he found in his research of Haitian voodoo. It can be defined as the spirit and power of a human being. But in this dance, the power of the human spirit has been irrevocably broken unlike Ailey’s more famous work Revelations in which the power of the human spirit is seen in all its glory.
The most recent Chicago race riot that occurred before the making of this piece was the riot in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With the grief Chicago was experiencing along with the heart wrenching similarities witnessed in South Africa, one would say that Masekela Langage was an appropriate work of art premiered at the right time. It was relatable and not just in one or two communities, but across the globe. It was and still is a raw representation of the racial struggles that are still occurring today. In present time, one could say that the piece is a juxtaposition between the racial issues in America today and the period of apartheid in South Africa.
Alvin Ailey was born January 5, 1931 in Rogers, Texas in his grandfather’s home, becoming the thirteenth member of the household (Revelations, 26). Ailey grew up without his biological father, moving from place to place with his mother during a very difficult time period for African Americans (Revelations, 17). Slavery had been abolished, however, segregation and inequality were still grossly afoot. The Great Depression also made conditions for African Americans worse. Ailey’s mother picked cotton, and when Ailey was about four or five, he worked the cotton fields as well (Revelations, 18). His childhood experiences definitely became sources for his choreography. He explains how he would watch party-goers, including his mother, at the Dew Drop Inn (a juke joint) as a young boy which later inspired him to create Blues Suite (Revelations, 22-23). His experience in the Southern Baptist church inspired him to create Revelations (Revelations, 23).
Ailey and his mother moved to Los Angeles in 1941 during World War II (Revelations, 31). His mother’s job was still of low standards. Images of his mother on her knees scrubbing the floors for the homes of white people inspired Ailey to choreograph Cry (Revelations, 32). Ailey became very interested in music and a little in dance but was concerned about pursuing dance for fear of being called a “sissy”(Revelations, 36). Dance instruction for African Americans was also hard to come by. Ailey went through a number of sports and landed on gymnastics (Revelations, 38). Ailey soon met a girl named Carmen de Lavallade, who danced for the school assemblies, and she eventually introduced him to Lester Horton and finally the courage and option to dance was born (Revelations, 44).
Ailey attended UCLA after high school, but soon realized that his career wasn’t in the books; it was in dance (Revelations, 49). He continued dancing with Lester Horton and worked small side jobs. After Lester Horton’s death, Ailey began choreographing for the Horton Company and even premiered on Broadway (Revelations). Eventually, Ailey got tired of being told what to do and wanted to express his own ideas while giving African Americans a place to dance (Revelations, 89). He gathered a few dancers and began having classes with them in a “dingy, dark Michael’s Studio from two o’clock in the afternoon to six o’clock’’ (Revelations, 90). Blues Suite was the company’s first presentation (Revelations, 91). After their debut, Ailey was able to get a much bigger space for the company to rehearse in (Revelations, 93). From then, the repertory grew and their shows took them around the world; first to Southeast Asia (Revelations, 103). Alvin Ailey died of complications from HIV/AIDS on December 1, 1989 (Revelations, 148). The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is still a very successful company and school that tours the world all year-round.
Alvin Ailey’s influence in choreographing Masekela Langage was first the music. He was introduced to the music of Hugh Masekela when he heard it in Los Angeles (Interview, 1969). He was moved by the South African jazz feel of it and began collecting every album. yet Ailey was inspired by the powerful feeling and emotions behind the music and how inviting it was. In its celebration of African culture, Ailey said it was both “beautiful and painful” in his interview in 1969.  Ailey took a trip to South Africa in 1967 and searched for ordinary life, where you might see a group of people outside dancing or a couple arguing. He wanted to experience the good and the bad. Amongst these experiences, Ailey could not ignore how much the interactions of the people and the events taking place resembled life in Chicago. This created another driving inspiration for the piece.
In the interview with Alvin Ailey in 1969, Ailey stated that Masekela Langage was dedicated to Katherine Dunham and that all the women in the piece had a piece of Katherine Dunham in them. Katherine Dunham was an African American pioneer of modern dance born in Chicago in 1909. Alvin Ailey said that Dunham was Chicago, so that it was only right to dedicate a piece with Chicago influence to her (Interview, 1969). She is known for her expressive movement and her dominating energy especially in her films.
Masekela Langage is a visual interpretation of life in Africa. This dance shows how images of life in Africa parallel life in less fortunate areas, specifically Chicago at the time of the creation. Ailey uses 6 pieces of music from Hugh Masekela’s albums. The mix of jazz and African style is very catching. It is a unique choice of music that really heightened the piece overall. The piece begins with dancers entering the stage and setting a character for themselves. Instantly one can see that the dancers are civilians and the setting is a public commonplace. As the dance continues, the dancers interact with each other both conflictingly and emphatically. The dancers begin by dancing with each other, however, this soon turns into a display of unfortunate events and physical altercations.
With the use of miming and emotion driving their movement, the dancers successfully tell stories of rape, murder, and the joy of just being alive. The piece ends with the death of a civilian. The current ending where the dancers leave the dead dancer and continue with their normal tasks resonates the most. This can be compared to the repeat shootings that we have been forced to witness, but also forced to keep living as if nothing has happened.
The piece has grown tremendously from the time it was first danced in July 1969 to present day. Ailey was nowhere near complete when he first premiered this piece. There are several emotions depicted in the piece from pain to anger to a forced sense of fun. It looks as if the dancers are creating individual scenarios within the solos, duets, and small group sections. Overtime, the costuming, set, and even the movement quality has changed to better communicate his message.

In a 1969 filmed version, the women are dressed in unitards and the men are wearing a simple top and pants. The versions that followed also had costumes that were very simple. This created less chances of distraction, however, it did not necessarily add to the story. In the versions today, everyone is dressed differently in clothes that represent the 1960’s and the setting. The individualism helps the audience understand each character in their own story and makes the stage pop in a different way. The reference that the costumes create makes the image much more real. The lack of detailed costumes and supporting props could be due to Ailey’s desire to get the message to an audience without offending anyone or getting too personal. It could also be due to the fact that the time the piece was created and the time depicted in the piece were one in the same.
            Ailey began to elaborate on his set in 1970. The set began as just folding chairs to accompany each dancer in 1969. In the 1970 filmed version the set consisted of an old fan spinning on the ceiling and a variety of different old style chairs. There are tables and chairs set up in the back and a jukebox in the downstage corner. This scenery paints a more realistic picture of a bar. It also adds to the creation of the decaying world that Ailey mentioned in his interview in 1969. The use of the jukebox also gives an outlet to the changing music which remains the same from the first filmed version. At this point, Ailey has had a chance to step back to look for what the piece needed. From this video, one could say that the supporting items were one of the first things to change to further develop the piece.
            Masekela Langage is a play with no words just like classical ballets. The dancers use miming to relay the message in each scenario. The movement in the earlier versions is generally pretty simple. In the newer versions, however, the motifs are more noticeable and some of the movements look enhanced and more intricate. There is also a difference in the connection between the dancers before the four duets began dancing. It seems like there is more hostility in the air. One of the male dancers shoves another male and female dancer before beginning the section. There is also more interaction with the jukebox which creates the illusion that the dancers are controlling the music. In having more time with the piece, the dancers are able to settle more into their characters. The duet between the two males fighting looks much more connected and better resembles an actual fight. The release of the movement looks to have been emphasized a lot more in the newer versions. The cast is also changing which can have an impact on the experience taking place on stage.
In the end of the 1970 version, the dancers pick up the dead dancer and look to the audience (Masekela Langage, 1970). This choice was new and communicated a different image. Ignoring the dancer showed how easy it is for people of that environment to continue with life after a tragic death, however, this alternate ending looks more like a plea for change. Ailey may have wanted to focus everyone’s attention on the social injustice of that time and catalyze action. Today, the ending reverts back to the version filmed in 1969. The dancers leave the dead dancer on the ground stretched out as they repeat the opening section (Masekela Langage, 1978). This reads much more powerful than picking up the dancer. It shows the actual reactions of everyday people to the unexplainable brutal deaths.

Amongst many other critiques and articles on The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Jennifer Dunning takes a closer look into the head of a performer in Masekela Langage by speaking with Marilyn Banks. In this newspaper article, Banks explains how she attacks certain movements and what she is thinking about when transitioning between pieces in the show. In the article she explains how she is normally expected to be comical and how she is yearning for a more serious role like Cry (Dunning, 12). However, getting into the character for Masekela Langage was still very much a challenge. The heading before Banks begin to talk about Masekela Langage reads “The Magic Can Come Hard” (Dunning, 12).  What Banks means by this is that rehearsals for Masekela Langage are sometimes boring but when it comes to the big night, she has to put herself in the mindset of hatred. Banks tells Dunning, ”It’s one of the hardest for me. You have to bring out a lot of hate. Alvin said to go back and remember something someone did to you” (Dunning, 12). She also tells Dunning that she thinks of starving people and people killed with chains. After the performance, the dancers are emotionally affected. Banks states “Everyone in the company is real tense. They run up to their dressing rooms afterward to get out of it” (Dunning, 12).

The dance has received positive reviews since its premiere, with critics particularly focusing on the dramatic content as well as the pain and darkness of the events depicted. In 1969 after the premiere of the work, Anna Kisselgoff described Masekela Langage as being Ailey’s most militant piece, but that the message is universal rather than about one specific event or time. She says the dance “is political in a nonpolitical manner” (57). Dancers Kelvin Rotardier, Judith Jamison, and George Faison most impressed Kisselgoff (57).
In 1970, Don McDonagh wrote a review on Masekela Langage. McDonagh felt that the dancers captured the intense burdens and conditions very well. McDonagh acknowledged Judith Jamison for her solo that was full of anguish, Kelvin Rotardier as the citizen, and Michele Murray as a “soft-sprung dynamo” (McDonagh, 32). He has an overall positive attitude toward Masekela Langage and the company. McDonagh explains it as having “sympathetic rapport with the stylistic inflections of African trumpeter Hugh Masekela” (32). From reading this review, one could say that the changes and additions Ailey made from the earliest versions were successful. The message stroked the targeted emotions according to Don McDonagh.
Jennifer Dunning critiqued Masekela Langage in December, 1978. Dunning describes the piece as being “pure theatre-dance” with “larger than life personality” (Dunning, C15). Dunning also states “Masekela Langage might be the dark reverse of Revelations” (C15). Dunning mentions the clear images of violence, sexuality, and the images parallel to conditions in South Africa
Gia Kourlas’ very recent critique shows how successful the company is still in delivering the message and evoking emotions. Kourlas understands the piece to be about the parallels of apartheid and life in 1960’s Chicago. She compares this work to that of Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America which also visualizes a social issue in less fortunate families. The music resonated with Kourlas a great deal, however, she stated “With quiet, measured brutality, it was something of a tableau vivant coming to life as it told, through spurts of agitated movement and biting stillness, how violence and prejudice can make a place crumble and how despair and defiance go hand in hand (Kourlas).”
In today’s society, the violence is rising between police officers and minorities, particularly African Americans. There have been times in the past few years where an African American has been killed everyday for four days straight by a police officer. This has been happening all over the US and has started riots and movements everywhere. For African Americans, the world can feel like a jail that they may never make it out of especially in low income neighborhoods. With lack of money, opportunity, and guidance, many African Americans find themselves doing illegal things to survive or happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. After an encounter with the law it is hard to maintain a comfortable life. This fact along with the fear of judicial encounters gives reason to why Masekela Langage speaks such volumes today.
Alvin Ailey’s work is heavily influenced by the society he grew up in while also celebrating African American life and culture. Images that Ailey saw are replicated in many of his works and were commonly the base of his inspiration. Because history often repeats itself, the importance of Ailey’s works such as Masekela Langage remains the same if not greater. Audiences can still relate to brutal conditions faced in a low income community. Masekela Langage exposed these brutal conditions, exploring them through the power of movement. Choreographers and dancers have power they may not always realize to enact social change and expose social conditions that need changing. Ailey’s choreography shows that he was well aware of that power and used it to great effect.

 

Works Cited
Ailey Organization. “Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Masekela Langage.” YouTube, 09 Mar. 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
Ailey, Alvin, and A. Peter. Bailey. Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey. Secaucus, NJ: Carol Pub. Group, 1997. Print.
Carman, Joseph. “Reviews, New York City: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.” Dance Magazine Apr. 1999: 82-84. Print.
Dunning, Jennifer. “Dance: Ailey Stages ‘Langage'” New York Times 18 Dec. 1978: C15. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
Dunning, Jennifer. “The Exuberant Humor of Marilyn Banks.” New York Times 12 Dec. 1980, sec. C: 12. New York Times Company, 29 June 2016. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.
“Interview with Alvin Ailey.” Interview. Performing Arts Research Collections – Dance. MGZTC 3-59, 1969. Radio.
Kisselgoff, Anna. “Dance: Militant ‘Masekela Langage'” New York Times 21 Nov. 1969: 57.  Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
Kourlas, Gia. “An Evening of Ronald K. Brown Lifts Alvin Ailey’s Season.” New York Times. N.p., 27 Dec. 2016. Web. 7 Mar. 2017. Masekela Langage [videorecording]. performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Imprint, 1969.
Masekela Langage [videorecording]. performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Imprint, 1970.
Masekela Langage [videorecording]. performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, Imprint, 1978.
McDonagh, Don. “Alvin Ailey Troupe In ‘Dance for Six’ By Joyce Trisler.” New York Times n.d.: 32. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
Reiter, Susan. “Review: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, City Center” Dance News [New York] Dec. 1979: 12. Print.
 

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