Former Mt. Airy Resident Maps the Intersection of Race, Culture, and Dance
Brenda Dixon Gottschild talked about her new book.
Before boarding a flight to Toronto to speak at the International Association of Blacks in Dance festival, dancer-turned-actor-turned-professor-turned-author—and apparently gleeful vandal of the line that there are no second acts in American life—Brenda Dixon Gottschild talked to Patch about the release of her book Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina: A Biohistory of American Performance.
Three weeks into its release, the academic title has drawn considerable attention and praise for its examination of the interplay between dance and culture. Its author, a veteran of the lecture circuit, is flattered but unfazed.
"I look at dance, at performance, as a microcosm of the world at large ... as a way of assessing the pulse, or the barometer, of a particular society at a particular time," the Chestnut Hill resident said. (Gottschild lived in Mt. Airy from 1989 to 2007.)
"So, for instance, the fact that most quote unquote ‘white’ dance companies are still not integrated ethnically tells us that race is still a problem in America."
Gottschild—who credits a grant she received from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage Through Dance Advance for the considerable wind at her book’s back—swats away, quickly and decisively, any interpretation of professional dance as merely individual expression.
"Dance reflects its world," she insisted. "It’s part of the zeitgeist. It’s part of the spirit of its time. There is nothing pure about it."
She emphasized that it's a cultural—not an individual—expression. She cited a classic.
"[Look at] Swan Lake. What it illustrates is not so much a pure ethereal world, but what the world at large felt that the European woman should be at that time. She should be asexual. She should wear tutus. She should be on point, so she’s lifted up towards heaven."
But what then can contemporary dance tell us about modern American life? What values, or prejudices, does it reflect?
"That’s too broad," she demurred. "Let’s talk about PHILADANCO."
PHILADANCO of course being the Philadelphia Dance Company—the iconographic North Preston Street troupe whose founder is Gottschild’s title character.
"40 years ago there was no professional performance outlet for African Americans," said the author. But Joan Myers Brown founded one in 1970.
"PHILADANCO is still largely populated by African Americans," she went on, "but they’re from everywhere across the nation and sometimes from across the globe. She’s had German dancers, Canadians, Philippines."
The ethnic composition of a dance company, she said, is instructive. Who does it let in? Just as importantly, who does it keep out?
"Then," Gottschild added, "you can look at bodies. For example, is it still a company that is following ballet aesthetics, so that the bodies look very balletic, or is it say a company like the Bill T Jones Dance Company where the bodies look much more athletic?"
And perhaps most tellingly, who is in charge?
"The dancer is at the service of the choreographer, and in our contemporary world, the choreographer is at the service of funding agencies. All of these things play into the culture of dance, just as they play into the culture of politics."
"Dance is political," she said.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild will do readings from "Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina: A Biohistory of American Performance" on Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. at Big Blue Marble Bookstore and again on Feb. 15 at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore.