A model for the 'dance world we want'

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A model for the 'dance world we want'
J. Bouey, a host of the Dance Union podcast, which started in 2018, dances on a sidewalk in Brooklyn, June 11, 2020. Bouey, co-host Melanie Greene and about 30 colleagues organized a live online gathering entitled “Town Hall for Collective Action: Dismantling White Supremacy Within Dance Institutions” that attracted close to a thousand people. Brad Ogbonna/The New York Times.

by Siobhan Burke

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Fair pay for dancers, abuses of power in dance companies, racism in dance criticism: As the hosts of the Dance Union, an independent podcast started in 2018, J. Bouey and Melanie Greene are known for speaking out on topics often shrouded in silence.

So a few weeks ago, when a document titled “An Open Letter to Arts Organizations Rampant With White Supremacy” began circulating online, they joined in the dialogue. Written by artist Nana Chinara, the letter called out Gina Gibney — the chief executive of Gibney, a lower Manhattan dance institution — for failing to honor a grant commitment to Chinara and dismissing her concerns. More broadly, the letter demanded change from white people who “actively foster environments that lead to Black harm.” (Gibney has since publicly apologized, and Chinara said in an Instagram post that the organization has compensated her.)

The letter raised issues that Greene and J. Bouey (who uses the pronoun they) have long addressed, both as New York dance artists and engaged citizens, in their frank, animated podcast conversations. Moved by the discussion the letter stirred up, J. Bouey proposed a larger forum for working toward change. Greene agreed, and within a few days, supported by a team of about 30 colleagues, they had organized their first online gathering: “Town Hall for Collective Action: Dismantling White Supremacy Within Dance Institutions.” Between those participating on Zoom and those tuning in to a YouTube livestream, close to a thousand people attended.

“We started talking about white supremacy a while ago on our podcast,” said Greene, 37, a dancer, choreographer, writer and arts administrator, when she and J. Bouey, 28, met for an interview over Zoom last weekend. “So it’s been building. There were so many sparks, and then there was this flame. J. felt that flame and was able to rally folks around immediately when it was necessary.”

Over the past few months, with live performances canceled or on hold, dance artists have been mobilizing on multiple fronts to transform flawed and outdated systems. The Dance Artists’ National Collective, a group working to organize for a freelance dancers’ union, has seen record attendance at its virtual meetings. In early May, a webinar about a collaboratively written, 140-page, in-progress text called “Creating New Futures: Working Guidelines for Ethics & Equity in Presenting Dance & Performance” drew nearly 7,000 viewers, a large audience for a relatively niche subject.

A second Dance Union town hall is scheduled for Monday, with a focus on actions related to dance education, mental health and other organizing efforts. J. Bouey, a choreographer who also dances with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, said that in at least one respect, progress is well underway.

“The first point of the podcast was to address the oppressive culture that makes dancers disconnected from their voice, disconnected from speaking out,” they said. “Now dancers are speaking out, and they’re speaking directly to who needs to hear it.”

The Dance Union duo talked about their work together and their own confrontations with racism in the dance world. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What inspired you to organize a town hall?

GREENE: I’ve been to a lot of dance events where there’s a lot of talking, a lot of bio-sharing, and always the beginning of the conversation. But there are never steps moving forward. So when J. brought this to me, I saw it as an opportunity to model the kind of dance world we want, where we actually listen to each other, we create actionable steps of how to move forward, and we implement those steps.

What was exciting to hear, for me, was this clear and direct action around how to dismantle white supremacy. For example, an organization I work with is committed to having a board of directors that is 50 to 65 percent people of color. They’re very clear about that.

Q: What other actions are you guiding people toward, or seeing people take?

BOUEY: Our purpose for the first town hall was to listen. We were listening for the ways that our community wants to take action. This next town hall is to line up those desires with organizers who are doing those actions, to say: “Hey, you wanted to do this? Here are folks that are doing it. Give them some of your people power and whatever other kind of energy you have.”

Q: In your own work as artists, how have you come up against white supremacy in dance institutions?

BOUEY: I’m a postmodern art maker, and when I’m in certain spaces, great white folks in postmodern dance are centered in the conversation. Merce Cunningham. John Cage. I didn’t learn about people like Pearl Primus and Eleo Pomare in school. I learned about them after graduating, from the black community in New York, who kept their names and histories alive for me to learn about later. So, I experience white supremacy by who we center as knowledgeable in any field of art, thought and practice.

GREENE: An example I’m witnessing is white-led organizations that have words like “equity” and “anti-racism” in their statements, saying how they move through the world, but it’s not reflected in how they treat their employees. A lot of labor is put on folks of color in “lower levels” of the institution to make sure that is maintained. They’re forced to do the labor of making sure the institution looks anti-racist, while you have white leaders who are not doing that work.

BOUEY: When I moved to New York, I worked almost specifically with black artists, black schools. I was working within institutions that had black leadership, and white supremacy still was living and thriving there, as well.

I’ve been in rehearsals where I have to call out white supremacy, and it’s only black people in the room. We have this saying that “not all skin folk are kin folk,” which basically means that just because we share the same oppression doesn’t mean that we completely understand, nor do we have the same intentions of dismantling it.

Q: With the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent momentum of Black Lives Matter, there’s been more public dialogue about the need for structural change in the arts. Do you feel aligned with other efforts going on?

GREENE: Something we have learned from our elders is that it’s important for the movement to be happening in different ways, and that leadership is decentralized. That collectively the movement is sort of fluctuating, so if one part of it gets touched, you’ve got other folks ready to rise up.

Q: It seems like your work as podcast hosts is really expanding. What do you appreciate about your partnership?

BOUEY: The Dance Union has become a place where Melanie and I have brought our frustrations and our disappointments in other areas and asked each other, How do we not repeat that here?

GREENE: And we’ve been vulnerable. That’s huge. Bringing our most vulnerable selves, and trusting that the other person will hold that and respect it and that we can get to another place together.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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