Jennifer Archibald Responds to the Tulsa Race Massacre With a Multimedia Premiere for Tulsa Ballet

Jennifer Archibald’s professional roles almost mirror the breadth of the dance field itself. A Canadian now based in New York City, she runs her own dance company and its ArchCore40 Dance Intensives; is a guest artist at several universities and teaches at the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University; has commercial clients like Nike and MAC Cosmetics; and is resident choreographer at Cincinnati Ballet.

This month, Tulsa Ballet premieres her multimedia Breakin’ Bricks after a yearlong creative process. Made for the company plus eight Black dancers hired for the project, Breakin’ Bricks reflects upon—and responds to—the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which terrorized the city’s prosperous Black community of Greenwood. The piece is, Archibald says, “one of the most difficult projects I’ve ever done.”

You’ve called Breakin’ Bricks a “documentary-format ballet.” What does that mean?

I went into the field with a videographer, Guy de Lancey, to interview people about what life in Tulsa is like today from a racial perspective. I put myself in a journalist’s shoes, in a way. What was challenging was getting people to talk transparently. It was hard to peel back the layers and get answers to “What’s the difference between North and South Tulsa? Do you cross the tracks? Will Greenwood be prosperous again?”

When Marcello [Angelini, Tulsa Ballet’s artistic director] approached me, the only ways I could see this being authentic and successful were, one, if we hired Black dancers and, two, if we brought local voices into the story. I didn’t think I would be able to honor the spirits and authentically commemorate Black people if I didn’t have film and audio sharing space with the movement onstage. That’s why documentation has been so attractive to me, because I feel like, when we watch ballets, they can be so abstract. We don’t usually know who these people in front of us are.

There was an audition in June to hire Black dancers for Breakin’ Bricks. What were you looking for?

Initially, I wasn’t sure if I wanted ballet versus contemporary movers, so I said, “Let’s keep it general and see who’s interested.” What was great about that process were the dancers who reached out to say, “Listen, I’m really interested in this, but I’m concerned about” this or that. It was eye-opening in terms of my responsibility to make sure the Black dancers I chose felt supported.

All while ballet itself is reassessing and metabolizing its relationship to white supremacy culture. How will you bring this history and this art form into meaningful dialogue?

I do not have a black-and-white answer, but it is something that has kept me awake numerous nights. It’s important that we all know that, in this process, we can make mistakes and make amends and learn from it. I’ve tried to be as transparent as I can be with all of the dancers, who sometimes email me questions about this process in the middle of the night. It’s a learning curve that extends to how we’re going to market the show, and how we’re going to do outreach during the residency for these Black artists, because they’re interested in teaching workshops and reaching the community that never shows up to the ballet. I really, really want to make sure the audience is diverse and that we’re not just presenting to a predominantly white audience, which is what I do all the time.

Ideally, it’s a productive process.

That’s the thing: The company has to realize this is not like any other commission, and all of the departments need to realize they are included in that transformation. These dancers can’t come in, as guests, and feel isolated. The residency for the Black dancers we’ve hired is just five weeks. That in itself is a testament to why ballet companies need to be more diverse, so these stories can live for more than just three or four nights.

The post Jennifer Archibald Responds to the Tulsa Race Massacre With a Multimedia Premiere for Tulsa Ballet appeared first on Dance Magazine.

Why Some Dancers Are Finding an Outlet in Burlesque

If you hear that someone’s a burlesque performer, you might call to mind Gypsy Rose Lee’s journey from vaudeville youngster to snobby stripper in Gypsy, or even the painted ladies of Moulin Rouge! Burlesque, however, is neither. And for the growing number of women who have found their way to nightlife performance from a concert-dance background, burlesque can feel pretty close to a feminist utopia—one where women’s bodies and choreographic voices are celebrated.

Yes, stereotypes and tokenism remain an issue. But burlesque performers often find an outlet they never imagined in formal dance studios. “It really fills my cup,” says Marcy Richardson, who marries aerial dance, opera and pole dancing in her nightlife act, and also performs with the burlesque troupe Company XIV. “I get to be my most authentic self and let go of any expectations that people have.”

Burlesque’s history in the U.S. has deeper roots than modern dance or even ballet. It grew out of Victorian music hall, Victorian burlesque and minstrel shows in the second half of the 19th century. Today’s version of burlesque best resembles that of the early 1900s, when vaudeville reigned supreme. The form flourished during prohibition, and, pushed partially underground, the striptease took center stage. A wave of censorship shut down shows in the late ’30s, but burlesque came roaring back in the ’40s and ’50s, thanks to female trailblazers like Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm.

An entrepreneurial spirit remains firmly embedded in 21st-century burlesque. Like concert-dance choreographers, burlesquers often wear many hats: dancemaker, costume designer, self-promoter, makeup artist. “Generally, we’re independent artists,” says Jeez Loueez, a New Orleans–based burlesque performer who started out in musical theater. “It’s up to you to seek out the jobs—and get your own rehearsal space, edit your own music and design your own costumes.”

One of the most rewarding differences from a formal dance career is how often you get to perform, says burlesquer Dirty Martini. Burlesque acts translate well to myriad venues with the capacity to pull together a show quickly. “When you’re rehearsing for a contemporary-dance work, it takes, what, six months to get a concert together, and maybe you can perform for one weekend,” says Martini. “In nightlife, there are shows four or five times a week. You can take an idea you have, and in a week it’s onstage.”

The need to constantly market yourself in order to generate an audience and a loyal following feels similarly exhausting to the hustle demanded of independent contemporary choreographers, however. For most of Loueez’s burlesque career, she’s had to get enough butts in seats to turn a profit for herself. “Say there’s a bar that wants to have a burlesque show,” she says. “You might reach out to a producer, who’ll say, ‘Great. It’ll cost me $2,000 to produce this event.’ Now you have to sell tickets and match that cost before getting a cut of the door.” Loueez likes to joke that if she worked at Walgreens, she wouldn’t need to constantly post on social media that everyone should come visit her at a certain time. “I wish I could just go to work without having to shout about it every day on social media.”

Despite burlesque’s hustle culture, the transition into nightlife for most dancers-turned-burlesque-performers feels like taking a big gulp of fresh air. “Before burlesque, I would go to auditions, and I could see that I was a better dancer, but I wasn’t getting the job because I looked a certain way or I wasn’t the right height,” says Michelle L’amour, known colloquially as The Most Naked Woman. While she was dancing for an industrial glam-rock band, the front man, whom she was dating, asked her if she’d like to create a burlesque show as an opening act. L’amour said yes (“even though I had no idea what that was,” she says with a laugh). When she did her first striptease, she knew this was going to be her life. (And that front man is now her husband.)

For Zelia Rose, a burlesque performer who is also a swing in Australia’s production of Hamilton, the absence of needing to look or perform better than someone else is a big draw. “Sure, there’s always going to be competition,” she says, “but there’s never a sense of ‘Oh, I’m comparing myself to this person, the way my body looks.’ There’s more of a celebration of coming together.”

Burlesque offers a particular performance haven for plus-size women, who are weary of concert-dance companies that seem to uniformly hire a highly specific body type: thin. When she graduated from Purchase College—a program she says she entered on weight probation—Martini knew the odds of finding a contemporary-dance gig were small. “I auditioned for everyone, and I knew no one was going to hire me, because I was a size 14 or 16,” she says.

A woman staring intensely at the camera, with moody red lighting. She is wearing a decorative bikini style outfit, with a draped cloth running from her hip.
Zelia Rose; Richard Marz, Courtesy Rose

Carving a space for herself and helping to shape the nascent burlesque scene in New York City in the 1990s was thrilling. “It’s exciting for me to present a body that people get excited about,” says Martini, a past winner of burlesque’s version of the Olympics, the Miss Exotic World pageant. “It’s not just men being excited because it’s titillating—the majority are women who are so excited to see a body that’s not reflected in magazines or in television or the movies. They’re like, ‘Oh, thank God! Somebody’s representing the majority of women in the U.S. who are over a size 12.’ “

Of course, stereotyping still exists. “When you look at the ways shows are cast, it might be five thin white girls and a brown girl and a fat girl,” says Jezebel Express, a burlesque dancer who recently began performing out of a specially outfitted school bus. “You still see some idea that people are welcome, but only if they’re achieving at a super-high level.” It’s common for plus-size performers to feel relegated to comedic routines, Express says: “They expect to have to deflect their sexuality.”

Burlesque, like nearly every performance field, still has work to do when it comes to moving beyond tokenism and successfully integrating performers of color. “I get pigeonholed into always being the representation card,” says Rose. “I’ll often be the only POC visible in shows.”

It’s an audience-diversity issue, too, says Loueez. “Producers will ask me, ‘How do I get my audience to be more diverse?’ ” she says. “Well, you booked 10 skinny white ladies! If you’re not seeing yourself reflected onstage, you’re not going to go to those shows.”

Loueez, who 10 years ago founded Jeezy’s Juke Joint, a Black Burly Q Revue, as a way to shine a light on Black burlesque performers, uses her teaching career as a tool for change. “I started teaching because I was tired of seeing appropriation,” she says. “A lot of people were using it for comedic effect: ‘How hilarious is it that I’m white and I’m trying to twerk!’ But if a Black burlesque performer did the same act, it would be too stripper-y or raunchy. I have to remind myself that burlesque is not a sparkly bubble where racism and ableism and classicism don’t exist.”

It is a space, performers argue, that offers a wider range of self-expression than its concert-dance counterpart—and seems more ready to tackle the problematic issues that need fixing. “We live in a culture that created a hierarchy of bodies that serve the patriarchy,” says Express. “But people are slowly hopping off the train, one at a time. And I get to help them off the train—with burlesque.”

The post Why Some Dancers Are Finding an Outlet in Burlesque appeared first on Dance Magazine.