Charles O. Anderson's Dance (R)evolution

Monday, February 25, 2019

by Jen Reel

Charles Anderson dancing
University of Texas Head of Dance Charles O. Anderson in (Re)current Unrest Part 3: Clapback, created by Anderson and Jeremy Arnold and performed during the Fall for Dance concert in November 2017. Photo by Lawrence Peart

“Dance is for everybody. I believe that the dance came from the people

and that it should always be delivered back to the people."   -Alvin Ailey


***

Charles Anderson’s voice cracked as he spoke. It was November 2018, and he was addressing a large group of students who had just auditioned for his piece, Idobalé. Named after the Yoruba word meaning to pay one’s respect, Idobalé would be performed at the Dance Repertory Theatre’s spring concert as the Haruka Weiser Memorial Commission, created in 2017 and named after a first-year dance student who was murdered on campus in 2016 while walking home from rehearsal. Her death had wounded their community deeply; Anderson was reminding them that Idobalé was also a tribute to their strength.

“You are the keepers of something truly amazing,” he said. “This would not be this program without Haruka, without any of you.”

Anderson says the students approached dance differently after Weiser’s death, pushing themselves beyond technique and using dance as an outlet to organize and work through the chaos they were feeling.

“I have had many moments of darkness in my life,” says Anderson. “Dance puts you in your body, and sometimes that’s all you need to come out of your head.”  

Charles Anderson and students during auditions
Anderson and students during auditions for his piece, Idobalé, created for the Haruka Weiser Memorial Commission. Photo by Jen Reel


 

***

Anderson’s philosophy of dance is rooted in the idea that movement is a language that can convey lived experiences. As head of UT’s Dance program and a professor of dance and African diaspora studies, Anderson has infused the program with this ethos, transforming and diversifying the curriculum, faculty and student body while also maintaining an active professional career.

As a dancer, he has worked with such noted choreographers as Ronald K. Brown, Talley Beatty and Joy Kellman, among others. His choreography has been presented throughout the U.S. as well as internationally. He was selected as one of “The 25 Artists to Watch” by Dance Magazine and is a recipient of a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. His professional work has been supported by such foundations and organizations as the National Performance Network, The Pew Foundation for Arts and Heritage, The Independence Foundation, The Puffin Foundation and The Philadelphia Cultural Fund. His latest work, (Re)current Unrest, was recently awarded a New England Foundation for the Arts National Dance Production Grant and will begin touring in fall 2019.

It’s logical to assume he started dancing at a very young age, but Anderson didn’t take a formal class until he was a freshman studying engineering at Cornell University, where, after a night out dancing, his friends encouraged him to join a student dance club. “I was hooked after that,” says Anderson, recalling how he felt after choreographing his first solo. “It was a way to express myself without words that felt so honest.”

His time in the club convinced him that he needed to switch majors during his junior year and join Cornell’s dance program, where he was the only male and African-American studying dance. His professors, recognizing both his talent and risk of feeling isolated, brought him into the fold and immersed him into the program.

“[Cornell] had happened to hire two new gay, male faculty, and I had also come out at that time, so they really took me under their wing and immediately started setting work on me,” says Anderson.

He attended numerous competitions and festivals, including the American College Dance Festival Association, where he took a master class taught by the famous choreographer Ulysses Dove. The class would prove to be a turning point for Anderson, although he wouldn’t realize it until years later, when he discovered in a dance history class that the movement Dove had taught him was originally choreographed for Alvin Ailey’s Vespers, a commentary on the African-American church. Anderson grew up in the Baptist Church and had been exposed to spiritual forms of dancing and testifying at an early age. It was his aha moment and helped solidify his commitment to what he calls “kinetic storytelling.”

“That solo he had me learn was literally speaking to me again. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this makes sense.’”

After graduation and a brief stint as an assistant principal in East Harlem, Anderson moved to Philadelphia and started his own dance company, dance theatre X (dtX) in 2003. When he applied for an adjunct teaching position at Temple University, he was recruited to join the university’s M.F.A. program. There, he discovered not only the field for African diaspora studies, but the language to speak about techniques and traditions that had been silenced or dismissed by imperialism, colonialism and racism.

“So much of the field of Africana studies, especially to Euro-centrists, can feel specious, like, ‘That’s great, but where is the actual proof?’ Just learning how to speak about it was life-changing and set me on a path, choreographically,” says Anderson.

Anderson would receive his graduate degree with honors and go on to create the first African-American studies program for Muhlenberg College, a small private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, where he worked for several years before accepting an associate professor position in UT’s Dance program.  

Charles Anderson and students on stage
Anderson and students in (Re)current Unrest Pt. 3: Clapback. Photo by Lawrence Peart

***

Created in 1945, still 11 years before African-Americans would be accepted into the University of Texas, UT’s Dance program was built on Western classical concepts of dance. Since then, it has taken generations of faculty and leadership to incorporate not just modern theories and contemporary work, but space for non-white traditions and forms to be considered.

Then-Head of Dance Lyn Wiltshire created Anderson’s position in 2011 to bring theory and practice of black dance to the program. An associate professor who came to UT in 1995, Wiltshire had written the curriculum for the first Dance M.F.A. and education programs in the early 2000s as well as the first global education and study abroad programs. She worked with Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, Dean Doug Dempster and the Office for Inclusion and Equity to bring someone with Anderson’s expertise to the department.

Anderson accepted and began teaching aesthetics in African-American concert dance, kinetic storytelling and African-American dance history first as elective courses. His professional work outside of the university, teaching master classes and workshops at festivals and associations, would prove to be an invaluable student recruiting tool. (Since Anderson’s arrival, the male-identifying population has tripled, and the black student population has grown to 8 percent. Between 2008 and 2011, no black students were enrolled.)

He’s initiated nationwide recruiting tours with the college’s admissions office and forged relationships with well-known performing arts high schools, attracting a large pool of talented and diverse students, both in gender and race, to the comprehensive program Anderson and other faculty members are building.

Gesel Mason and students
Associate Professor Gesel Mason and students discuss final projects in Mason's composition class. Photo by Jen Reel

Anderson was appointed head of dance in 2015 and successfully lobbied to reinstate the M.F.A. program, which had been put on a brief hiatus. He also garnered support for a stronger guest-artist program, inviting artists such as Gesel Mason, a renowned choreographer and dancer whose current projects include performing and documenting a living archive of work by prominent African-American choreographers; and Rennie Harris, whose pioneering work in hip-hop and street theater has dubbed him the “Basquiat of the U.S. contemporary dance scene” by the London Times. Anderson successfully recruited both as faculty members, bringing hip-hop, African-American history and tap into the core curriculum. To help build and expand upon the program’s legacy, Anderson offered full-time positions to adjunct faculty members brought in under Wiltshire’s leadership: Dorothy O’Shea Overbey, a classical and contemporary ballet instructor with expertise in dance in film; and Erica Gionfriddo, who brings a deep integration of media and dance to the program.  

“I’ve seen an enormous escalation in things that were already here, but now they are fanned to a large flame,” says Associate Professor of Practice Andrea Beckham, currently the department’s longest-serving dance faculty member. “Charles is a warrior for artist citizens and social justice, and he pushes for interdisciplinary and collaborative and multidisciplinary work. I think it’s a really beautiful direction we’re heading.”

***

Millie Heckler hadn’t planned on joining an M.F.A program when she came to Texas. Working as an assistant to Rennie Harris, she accompanied him during his guest-artist residency at UT, where she demonstrated movements and taught the theory and context behind them. Anderson says one of his goals of inviting Harris as a guest artist was to offer him a faculty position, but after seeing Heckler work with the students, he also extended an invitation to her.

Millie Heckler
M.F.A. in Dance candidate Millie Heckler. Photo by Lawrence Peart

“I knew bringing hip-hop here when there hasn’t been a culture of it would be jarring to the student population,” says Anderson. “I could see that her being white could probably help with that transition, but more importantly, she connected so well with the students. Her overall gift is that she can teach so brilliantly and has tremendous integrity.”

Heckler accepted and would go on to teach the first hip-hop class offered in the Dance program. Within the year, Anderson invited her to join his newly revised M.F.A. program, based in social justice and artist citizenry.

She and Jeremy Arnold, who studied under Anderson at Muhlenberg and is a member of Anderson's dance company, are the first candidates to enter the new M.F.A. two-year program. Each year, two candidates are accepted, ensuring greater financial support and ample access to faculty mentoring.

“Charles said to me, ‘What does that mean to you? What does it mean to be a dancer for social justice, to level the playing field? What does true diversity mean?’” says Heckler, who will complete her first year in the program this summer. “I think that’s my main takeaway. How do we proactively get into systems, make space for more voices and in turn, more representation, across fields, across cultural aesthetics?”

“This kind of [social justice] emphasis actually makes you more employable,” says Mason, who serves as one of Heckler’s M.F.A. mentors. “Often I tell students that by being able to see where dance works in a community, you can make that job for yourself. You write that grant, you imagine new things that other people haven’t done or seen yet. This M.F.A. is really designed to hone an artist’s voice.”

Students dancing
Students perfrom in (Re)current Unrest Pt.3: Clapback by Anderson and Jeremy Arnold. Photo by Lawrence Peart

***

Anderson’s vision of dance as a platform for social commentary, for reflecting and challenging our cultural and societal norms, has expanded the program’s space for students to realize what kind of artists they can be.

“He’s brought in a really open, reflective thought process to artist citizenship and what that really means,” says Beckham. “Dance can live in so many ways. The changes he’s made inspire the students in a way that inspires their professors.”

“I’m just trying to set up a system that will perpetuate itself,” says Anderson. “My hope is that we continue to have a diverse understanding of what excellence is. We can have a remarkable b-boy or b-girl at the same time we have a remarkable ballet technician, all under the same roof, with the same level of appreciation and respect for the form and the field.

“I think we can become one of the top-tier dance programs in this country — top-tier without having to change the character of what we’ve built, which is a program invested in the idea of social justice, artist citizenship and non-elitism.”



 

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