Phila. dance visionary's spirit

From the book jacket
From the book jacket

Superb ballerina Joan Myers Brown, denied her due in a whites-only world, founded Philadanco.

Posted: January 15, 2012

Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina

A Biohistory of American Performance

By Brenda Dixon Gottschild

Palgrave Macmillan. 370 pp. $27

This is a Philadelphia story that rivals Rocky in blood, sweat, and tears, not to mention fabulous footwork.

Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope for the Black Ballerina is, of course, about the visionary founder and artistic director of Philadanco, the internationally renowned dance troupe that is still going strong after 40 years and that embodies the spirit of Philadelphia. Brown's achievements as a dance visionary are surpassed only by her accomplishments as an educator and mentor to generations of dance artists.

Who else could crystallize the social history and backstage story of Brown's journey but arts writer Brenda Dixon Gottschild, professor at Temple University and peerless dance scholar?

Audacious is both an unconventional "biohistory" of Brown - JB or Aunt Joan, as she is affectionately known - and a parallel history of African American dance culture.

In the last century, everything was not beautiful at the ballet for African Americans who wanted to work professionally. Dixon Gottschild deftly chronicles the disturbing dualities of Philadelphia as a racially progressive city and a city with entrenched racial divides. Against all odds, Brown and her brave contemporaries began training in the white-dominated dance world.

JB was born in 1931. Her career began by accident after a truck struck her as she was playing curb tag and injured her foot. As part of her rehabilitation, her mother enrolled her in a dance school, where the instructors immediately recognized her natural facility and "extraordinary, articulate feet." As a teenager, Brown came under the tutelage of three African American dance teachers, who were paving the way for blacks to pursue formal dance training in Philadelphia. The trio even broke the color line in one of the most influential ballet circles of New York - by sending students who could pass as white to take classes. The students would return and teach what they learned to darker-skinned students who would have been barred from such classes.

Brown showed exceptional facility at every ballet level. But she was barred from professional ballet training in white-only classes. She was so good, however, that the Littlefield Ballet Company, the most prestigious local ballet conservatory operating in the Philadelphia area at that time, gave her private lessons (and white dancers gave her day-to-day class updates).

She eventually was invited for elite lessons from British choreographic master Antony Tudor, who was in the United States working with the American Ballet Theatre and was also teaching in the Philadelphia area. Tudor, along with George Balanchine, was the architect of contemporary classicism of this era.

In the early 1950s, Tudor cast Brown in a Ballet Guild production of Les Sylphides, along with another black dancer, in an otherwise all-white ballet company. In a review of the performance, the young dancers were subjected to a racial slur.

This humiliation didn't occur again, as JB started off on her own career track. On the cabaret circuit, she became an in-demand show dancer for Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., and other black headliners, but her daytime ballet classes never stopped. Brown eventually spent two years in the nonracist environment of Montreal, studying there with the national ballet company.

When she returned to Philly, she created the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts in 1960 for black students who would otherwise be excluded from dance instruction. Ten years later, she created Philadanco and was pivotal in establishing Philly as a nexus for dance arts. "You can't just be a dance company, you have to do more," she tells Dixon Gottschild. The more she is referring to is community involvement, mentoring, and, through her school, a chance for every level of dancer, from student to professional, to thrive.

Dixon Gottschild details the intense training and grooming of a Philadanco dancer, with its combination of classical-ballet base, African classical, Afro-Caribbean, and other formal techniques of pioneering masters Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, and Lester Horton. Brown advocates what she terms "bilingual" dance training, meaning research and the academic study of dance as a requirement to build "the complete dancer." Brown keeps expanding her company's choreographic base, collaborating with a wide variety of dance-makers - Gene Hill Sagan, Talley Beatty, Carmen De Lavallade, Pearl Primus, Rennie Harris, Milton Myers, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Ronald K. Brown, Daniel Ezralow, and Trey McIntyre, among others - who work in neoclassical, cultural, and postmodern styles.

Even with its international reputation, Philadanco is sometimes viewed as a knockoff of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Yet, as the book shows, the opposite is true. Many former company dancers have joined the larger Ailey company. Ailey himself has credited JB and a "dynamic company, which has made such an explosive impact on the entire dance scene."

Dixon Gottschild, author of Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performances and Waltzing in the Dark doesn't write coffee-table dance books. She is a dance anthropologist and archivist, and a compelling polemicist. Her 2002 book, The Black Dancing Body, encompassed the entire scope of African American dance expression. The author continues her discourse, tracking various socio-ethnic issues and inequities as they relate to the performing arts. She is no less culturally confrontational in Audacious. She writes about the gay aesthetic in dance, for instance, which she calls "so central and significant that its invisibilization over generations has been unconscionable" - not just referencing everything dance-related, but also citing all social contexts.

Some readers may be disappointed that details of Brown's private life are missing in this volume. But this is the portrait of a driven artist, completely invested in every individual in her all-inclusive community of dance. Dixon Gottschild's obvious adoration leads to some redundancies in Audacious that give a one-note feel for the reader who is not enthralled by all things dance. But the author's salient analysis, as well as her poetic writing, continues to be instructive and inspiring.

Lewis Whittington writes about music and dance for such publications as Edge Media Network, American Record Guide, Dance International,

and ConcertoNet.

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