Dance Staying Woke: Charles O. Anderson’s choreography bears witness

With his new "(Re)Current Unrest,” the Austin-based choreographer uses an immersive multimedia environment to implicate the audience

Charles O. Anderson's "(Re)Current Unrest." Photo by Chia-ann Lu.

Charles O. Anderson is an Austin-based dancer, choreographer, and educator. He is head of the Dance Program at the University of Texas, associate professor of African Diaspora Dance Studies, and artistic director of Charles O. Anderson Dance Projects (formerly Dance Theatre X) an afro-contemporary dance theatre company. Anderson has performed in the companies of Ronald K. Brown, Sean Curran, Mark Dendy, and Miguel Gutierrez among others. His work has been presented nationally and internationally and has earned recognition by numerous grants and organizations such as the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, one of “25 to Watch” by Dance Magazine, and one of ‘12 Rising Stars in the Academy” by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education MagazineAnderson’s work “Restless Natives” premiered at the 2014 Fusebox Festival.

Recently, Fusebox curator Anna Gallagher-Ross had a chance to sit down with Anderson and hear about the development of his new work “(Re)Current Unrest” which will premier at the 2018 Fusebox Festival.

Anna Gallagher-Ross: Could you tell us about the inspiration for “(Re)Current Unrest” and the context it came out of?
Charles O. Anderson: It started because of that whole fury about Beyoncé being accused of stealing Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s choreography in her music video for the song, “Countdown.” That controversy became a teaching moment, as you know I work at UT, and it got me thinking a lot about cultural appropriation, which caused to me think about De Keersmaeker’s work with the early compositions of Steve Reich. Reich has haunted me throughout my dance career. I started out at Cornell University and he was considered a god there. I always found my relationship to his work complicated… it was both familiar and strange to me, so I knew that at some point I wanted to work with his music.

So in 2016, I started developing some work around one of his compositions, but right at the beginning of that process, one of my freshman dance students at UT, Haruka Weiser was murdered, and between that tragedy (committed by a young African American man) and the ongoing systematic killing of black men by law enforcement in this country, the piece started taking on larger dimensions than just these issues around cultural appropriation. So after we performed an early draft of the piece in Spring of 2016, I really started paying attention and going deeply into research on the Black Lives Matter movement and its parallels with the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, and so the piece continued to make use of Steve Reich’s music, but also started to be focused on this idea of staying woke and what that means from a physical standpoint.

“In my mind art for art’s sake is lovely if you have that luxury but in this day and time, art needs to be for humanity’s sake.”

AGR: Could you tell us a bit more about Steve Reich’s composition?
COA: His early compositions “It’s Gonna Rain, Part I and II” (1965), “Come Out” (1966) and “Pendulum” (1968) for which he rose to fame always struck me because they have this really interesting Africanist presence inside of them, a couple of them quite literally use African American voices to drive the composition, and I know that he spent a great deal of time studying African music forms. “Come Out” samples interview tapes of Daniel Hamm who was was one of six black men, referred to as the Harlem Six, falsely accused of murder in 1964, and I was interested that when “Come Out” was played in the context of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s work all of the sociopolitical context behind it disappears. No one watching her work seemed to realize that Reich’s composition is based on the voice of a man who had just been brutalized by police.

AGR: The title “(Re)Current Unrest” suggests that this history of brutality and inequality is very much a part of our present, recurring in different but tragically similar ways.
COA: Yes. We are working with that history and that imagery. Integrated media designers Jon Haas and Robert Mallin are designing the digital projections for the piece and the visuals included depict different states of water juxtaposed with historical imagery that in different ways portrays this systemic inequality.

AGR: These projections seem to have a kinetic relationship to the dancers, in a way, they feel like they are alive and performing as well, they seem to almost haunt the dancers.
COA: This is exactly right! I’m really interested in breaking down “the fourth wall” — the illusion that the experience onstage is separate or disconnected from the experience of the audience — to me it just doesn’t exist.  I connect this to W.E.B. Du Bois’s writing on the black experience in America, especially his metaphor of “the veil,” which refers to the practices of racism and segregation that excludes black people from mainstream society but also provides them with a “double consciousness,” or insight into these racial divisions. In this work I’m interested in implicating everyone in the space in the experience. The idea is that we are going to project this imagery through the entire space so that everyone is immersed inside of this world, not just what’s on stage, but even where you’re sitting, you can’t help but feel you’re inside of it. 

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AGR: That sounds incredible. You’ve said before that your goal is to create work that gives testimony. Could you talk about that? Does it relate to how you see the role of the audience?
COA: I think it was my being raised in Southern Baptist churches — I come from a culture where when one person tells their truth, your responsibility is to bear witness and to hold space for that telling. And the writer James Baldwin is kind of like my intellectual father, and his writings, his non-fiction writings in particular, are what guided me towards art making as testimony, of literally bearing witness to the world in which you are a part. That idea drives my choreographic practice and my point of view. I guess I could be more abstract, it’s not that I am not interested in abstraction, but I am not interested in escapism, and bearing witness keeps us present.

AGR: You want your movement rooted in something real.
COA: Exactly. Part of me is a little riled up because when I was teaching at American Dance Festival this past summer we had so many debates about this idea. People were asking: “why does the work have to be so in your face” and my response was: “that’s because we go out of our way not to have these things in our face.” In my mind art for art’s sake is lovely if you have that luxury but in this day and time, art needs to be for humanity’s sake.

AGR: There is an urgency to the subject matter that certain kinds of abstract movement won’t address?
COA: Yes. I hate the fact that concept of abstraction has been almost culturally colonized…Obviously my work is abstract in that I am not literally reenacting a riot, but it’s abstraction without a desire to distract or avoid socio-political and historical reality.

“I come from a culture where when one person tells their truth and your responsibility is to bear witness and to hold space for that telling. That idea drives my choreographic practice and my point of view.”

AGR: Who are the dancers involved in “(Re)Current Unrest?”
COA: Since moving down to Austin, I’ve been very interested in the millennial generation of dancers — the early 20-somethings are a whole other breed of human beings to me. So I made the choice to cast almost exclusively dancers under 25 and because of my relationship to UT, sixty per cent are UT dance alumni. I also had a core group that I had been working with in Philadelphia, prior to moving to Austin, and they are now entering their 30s but are still technically millennials. I’m also working with choreographer, Johnnie Mercer, who the first black male dancer I ever met who was born and raised in Richmond, VA, in the same neighborhoods as me; Abby Zibikowski who I taught at Temple when she was a freshman and danced with me for a few years in Philly; and Jeremy Arnold, who I taught at Muhlenberg College and was previously dancing with Tapestry, and who I now have working as a lecturer in tap at UT. Those three each have very specific roles within the piece.

AGR: You are the head of the dance program at UT and a professor as well as a practitioner. How do these roles inform one another?
COA: I started dancing late—I was almost 20 when I took my first dance class — so I had a sense of myself as a human being before beginning to formally train in dance. Those who have been dancing since the age of three don’t necessarily have that critical, intellectual relationship to dance. Prior to this I was an aerospace engineering major. I also needed to make a living and so I tried to combine dance with ways of making money, which was teaching, so in New York, I was both dancing and teaching high school chemistry and physics to pay the bills. Once I realized I liked teaching, I went to graduate school, and right out of grad school I got a professorship in the dance department at Temple University, so throughout my whole career, the theory and the practice, they made sense together.

AGR: What are you reading / thinking about these days?
COA: The writing of Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates are my bibles for this piece. They keep me honest in terms of what I want to do with this work. I also have been thinking about Octavia Butler, the late science fiction writer. In some ways her two books, “Parable of the Sower” (1993) and “Parable of the Talents” (1998) are also the catalyst for this. If you read her books you realize that ten years ago she predicted the current socio-political moment and national discord we currently find ourselves in. It’s kind of eerie: she predicted all of this and then she died.  And beyond that, I don’t have kids, so in a lot of ways this work is the letter to my legacy, or to the folks I’m never going to have, biologically speaking, so that’s on my mind a lot. I ask myself on a regular basis: what is my legacy if I don’t have my own kids?

I’m also thinking about the fact that in the dance world things are not what they were five or 10 years ago. I can’t figure out what’s driving dance now. When you look at the seminal work (and the primary demographics of the audiences that go to see the work) of the long-established dance companies I grew up up with — Paul Taylor, Martha Graham, and Mark Morris — it just seems so anachronistic and stuck in a cultural point of view…it’s not speaking to anything that is now. But when I look at what is considered contemporary it feels like “So You Think You Can Dance”; virtuosic, but lacking any intellectual depth or dramaturgical rigor. I think a lot about Generation X and how we are the cultural “middle children.” Baby boomers and millennials are dictating what dance is (or isn’t) and my generation is often facilitating that work as if we don’t have our own voice, and yet we are at the point where we are meant to be making these decisions as adults and artists.

Charles O. Anderson’s “(Re)Current Unrest.” Photo by Chia-ann Lu.

AGR: Does something feel like it’s going unsaid about dance for your generation
COA: We keep being on the precipice of acknowledging what so many of us already know—the systemic sexism, racism, homophobia and classicism in the dance world. And yet, it’s still not a deliberate call to action. We are still trying to buy into a system that is committed to establishing and maintaining elitist hierarchies that don’t really serve what we say we are about. Fusebox is one of the few examples I see in this nation that is genuinely trying to engage with a true diversity of art; that is in a conversation around values instead of aesthetics. I don’t see much of that. And we’re becoming more and more isolated from the rest of the world thanks to our dear 45th president, and as a result, I can’t exactly tell you what’s going on anymore. Then there are the gatekeepers of the world and the work. How can work get beyond the audiences that would automatically come see it anyway and those who can afford to see it? And how do you frame that work in such a way that doesn’t scare them away but instead empowers them and gives them an opportunity to hear and experience a different perspective on the world they are living in? These are the things I am thinking about.

This interview republished with permission from Fusebox Festival’s “Written & Spoken,” an online platform publishing international perspectives on contemporary performance.

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