There’s a whole lot to unpack in Dance Mission Theater’s Dance In Revolt(ing) Times (D.I.R.T.) Festival 2021. Unfolding over two brimming programs on March 5 and March 13, the virtual event is one big step in the organization’s commitment to “reparations,” a racial justice initiative inspired by last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
Guest curated by Oakland’s Sarah Crowell and Brooklyn-based Adia Tamar Whitaker, “Harriet’s Gun: Shapeshifting Towards a Radically Imagined Black Future” features videos by an intergenerational cast of Black artists from across the country. Rhodessa Jones, the co-artistic director of the San Francisco performance company Cultural Odyssey and director of The Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women, will emcee the production in realtime and host a live post-broadcast conversation with the featured artists. The broadcasts will not be available for viewing after the festival.
Conceptually, the festival is framed by the anniversaries of two iconic, confidence-shattering Black encounters with law enforcement: the March 3, 1991, LAPD beating of Rodney King and the March 13, 2020, shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, Kentucky. The festival is framed by pain, but the curators are quick to point out that the works they’ve selected focus on the powerful currents of hope, resistance and spirituality that sustain Black communities.
“There’s a weaving together of pain and resilience and struggle and joy beyond the struggle,” Crowell said. “We thought a lot about the meaning of the gun that Harriet Tubman carried on her missions taking people to freedom. Of all of the things we say that her gun represents, it’s not about killing. It’s about making sure we get free.”
“It’s not about pimping Black pain,” Whitaker added. “It’s challenging the way we think about Black joy and the Black experience, as it’s woven with pain and struggle.”
Rather than commissioning artists to make new works under still tenuous circumstances, Crowell and Whitaker invited an array of performers to submit works they’ve already documented. They see the D.I.R.T. Festival as an opportunity for putting the idea of reparations into action, compensating Black creators whose work exploring the conundrums of racial identity in America long predates the death of George Floyd.
“I really applaud Dance Mission being pioneers, not just talking about reparations for Black artists but making that tangible, inviting two Black women to take over the festival,” Crowell said. “Adia and I wanted to put our money where our mouth is, collecting this group of people who’ve been doing powerful work for decades. If you have a video work that resonates for you within the theme, give us that. You don’t have to create something new.”
Aside from Nicole Claymoon’s Embodiment Project from San Francisco and the Las Vegas body percussion company Molodi, Friday’s program focuses on East Coast artists such as Harlem’s Sydnie L. Mosley, Brooklyn’s UFly Mothership, Newark’s Kamille King, and André Zachery, the director of Renegade Performance Group, who choreographed a site-specific piece dancing on the Black Lives Matter mural painted on Brooklyn’s Fulton Street.
“It’s saying, ‘We’re going to be okay,’” Whitaker said, “We’re going to rise and have joy and dance in the streets. He’s casting a very specific spell. You have to use your words powerfully. Like Daenerys Targaryen releasing her dragons on everyone, everyone gets burnt up. We don’t want to do that.”
The March 13 program casts a wider geographic net. In addition to the Bay Area’s Zaccho Dance Theater, Afro Urban Society, Destiny Arts, and former Bay Area star Marc Bamuthi Joseph (now vice president and artistic director of social impact at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.), the acts include Miami’s Hattie Mae Williams, Michelle N. Gibson and The Brass from New Orleans, Chicago’s Red Clay Dance Company, and nia love from Harlem.
“We’re working from the aesthetic of creating a visually compelling show on Zoom, really just plunging into this challenge,” Whitaker said. “We’ve got group pieces and solos. The first program feels like air, lift, flight and buoyance. The second program is like water, like water of the womb, and sparking sunlight on top of the water.”
Whitaker is the only artist who created a new piece for “D.I.R.T.,” a reflection on her 15-year-old self, watching the video of Rodney King’s beating. A multi-disciplinary artist, she tells the story as a brief solo work using songs, recitation, dance and some very sparkly costumes.
Artistic Director of the 20-year-old Brooklyn-based dance theater ensemble Àṣẹ Dance Theatre Collective, Whitaker is a San Francisco native who has studied dance throughout Western Europe, Ghana and the African diaspora, with a particular focus on Haitian dance traditions. An award-winning choreographer, she earned a BA in dance from San Francisco State, and MFA in dance from Hollins University.
Crowell is still getting used to her emeritus status at Destiny Arts Center, where she’s worked in various capacities for three decades, including executive director from 2002-2007 and artistic director from 2007-2020.
She actually danced with Krissy Keefer’s Dance Brigade company before Keefer went on to launch Dance Mission Theater.
With roots in the radical wing of second wave 1970s feminism, Dance Mission has played a vital role in incubating and presenting new works since the late 1990s. In inviting Crowell and Whitaker in to program the D.I.R.T., the organization seeks to expand its mission “building community, exploring issues of social justice and cultural identity, promoting inclusivity and fairness.”
“It is not the job of organizations to be gatekeepers, but rather to figure out how to share the resources and organizing power so that more – not fewer – voices are heard,” Stella Adelman, managing director of Dance Mission Productions, wrote in an email. “We were coming up on the 30th anniversary of the Rodney King beating and wanted to mark this date but didn’t want the event to be another example of white people consuming Black pain. Neither Krissy nor myself are Black, and so we knew that we couldn’t/shouldn’t curate nor shape this event on our own. And so we began to think of Black artists who are visionary and also nuanced in their critical thought.”
Crowell and Whitaker quickly seized on the image of Harriet Tubman’s rifle, a weapon she never had cause to fire but which represented her complete commitment to seeing her missions through to freedom. In curating the festival, they noticed reoccurring motifs, themes and images running through the works.
“We’re putting your hands up, and our fists are still up in the air,” Whitaker said. “And you’re going to see multiple hoodies. It’s become a traditional African-American folklore costume. So many different hoodies, and inside of the hoodie, so many different kinds of conversations. Sarah and I took a lot of time and care with selecting pieces, trying to dig out, what is the hymnal? How does it go? How is Harriet a part of it? Ultimately, we are the bullets shot from her gun.”
Dance Mission Theater presents
D.I.R.T. Festival 2021: Dance In Revolt(ing) Times
Harriet’s Gun: Shapeshifting Towards a Radically Imagined Black Future
Virtual performances on Zoom: Fri, March 5 & Sat, March 13. Shows 5pm PST / 8pm EST.
Tickets: $10 sliding scale