The July 7th ArtCrawl Harlem fund raising performance of an excerpt from On The Block was a very special and rewarding evening. The excerpt entitled Intimate Strangers was the first sections choreographed for what would evolve into an eighty-minute one-act production. When Artistic Director Sheila Rohan and I embarked on the production for the Nanette Bearden Contemporary Dance Theatre, we decided to create a modern day story ballet.
We understood this type of dance has fallen out of favor with the general public, but it seemed a fitting tribute to the genius of artist Romare Bearden. Bearden was a true Renaissance man, who had a great respect for knowledge. In addition to his love of the visual arts and art history Bearden enjoyed poetry, literature, music, politics, and the sheer joy of living. A friendly and loquacious man Bearden delighted in the art of conversation, especially when he was able to share his experiences and insight, which meant he usually dominated every discourse.
On The Block is inspired by Bearden’s six-panel collage The Block. The collage depicts life on a block (Lenox Avenue between 132nd and 133rd Streets) in Bearden’s beloved Harlem. Our goal was to create a ballet that mirrored the humanism and dignity of The Block. This required us to reform a dance company that was both interdisciplinary and multi-generational.
Our company members ranged in age from fourteen to sixty-six, and were proficient in ballet, modern, jazz, tap, and social dances from the 1940’s through 1970’s. The more seasoned dancers coached the younger dancers on developing a role. Although the younger dancers were technically capable the most important elements quickly became nuance and attention to detail. When On The Block premiered as a work in progress in 2005 we had a ballet that evoked a gamut of emotions in true story ballet form.
In 2006 we presented excerpts of the work sporadically as we raised money to complete the ballet. Then the bottom fell out of the economy (it seems that the term fiscal conservative turned out to be an oxymoron, with a special emphasis on moron), and regrettably we put the ballet and company on hiatus. When Jacqueline Orange called and suggested reviving a section of the work we jumped at the opportunity.
Orange had seen the work in 2005 and thought it would make an excellent fundraiser for ArtCrawl Harlem. ArtCrawl Harlem is a four-hour trolley tour of Harlem art galleries and art in public spaces, the event will take place on August 6th. This year ArtCrawl Harlem will focus on the art of Romare Bearden and his love of Harlem. The event coincides with the 100 anniversary of the artist’s birth.
After a brief introduction the evening opened with a brief excerpt from the 1980 film Bearden Plays Bearden, in the film the artist discusses creating The Block. The Intimate Strangers section of the ballet On The Block followed the film clip, and evening ended with a question and answer session. The event was well received by the audience and renewed our commitment to complete the work.
I would like to personally thank our exceptional cast, staff and supporters. Dudley Williams was in his thirty-ninth season with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater when he began working with us in 2003. I have always marveled at his lyricism, but when we initially discussed the role I said to him, “Dudley for this role you are going to have to be a mean son of a bitch”. He responded, “I can do that”, and he did. I have learned so much from this consummate artist and I appreciate his friendship.
In 2005 Dyane Harvey took over the role originated by Hope Clarke. She stayed true to the character, while staying true to Dyane. Her artistry and regal deportment gave her character a combination of grace and vulnerability.
This was Sarita Allen’s first time working with us. Throughout her career she has distinguished herself with her fearless abandon attack, coupled with a crystalline technique. I had the pleasure of dancing with her on July 7th, she is such a focused artist, and while it was challenging the entire process remained a great deal of fun.
Sheila Rohan, the artistic director of the company, has been my dance partner, my collaborator, valued friend, and my big sister for most of my career. She has believed in me and supported my endeavors, both with the company and on independent projects. I love you Sheila.
Jacqueline Orange was our producer. She approached the project with zeal and a great enthusiasm. No matter what happened she managed to keep an ego free prospective and a sense of humor. Jackie thank you for helping us get back on track and back “On The Block”.
George Faison and Tad Schnugg have supported our efforts since 2003. The Faison Firehouse Theater has been our rehearsal site since the first pirouette. Over the past eight years we have seen the firehouse develop from a diamond in the rough to a Harlem treasure. George and “T” remain a source of inspiration.
Nanette Bearden had the vision of providing a nurturing environment for new and emerging dancers, choreographers, musicians, technical staff, set, light and costume designers. She also understood the need in preserving the work of established artists; and having those artists share their gifts with the next generation. It is an honor to now preserve her legacy.
The word that best describes Romare Bearden is generosity. He freely gave his time, shared his wealth of knowledge and artistry, and offered financial assistance to young artists and friends. His encouragement helped me to literally feel bulletproof when confronted with artistic and personal challenges. Like many truly great people he led by example- happy birthday Romy.
On September 2, 2011 we will commemorate the 100th birthday of Romare Bearden. The Romare Bearden Foundation in conjunction with many arts organizations will participate in a yearlong celebration of this prolific American artist. The next event will be the ArtCrawl Harlem on August 6th. For more information about this event visit www.artcrawlharlem.com. For information about upcoming Bearden events visit www.beardenfoundation.org
In Photo: 1) fifth panel from The Block 2) The Block 3) Dyane Harvey and Dudley Williams 4) Dyane Harvey 5) Sarita Allen and Walter Rutledge 6) Sheila Rohan 7) Nanette Bearden 8) Romare Bearden 9) Romare Bearden and Walter Rutledge
Photos by: 3,4,5) E. Lee White 6) Hubert Williams 7) James Kriegsman 8) Marvin E. Newman 9) Hugh Grannum