GREENSBORO — Professional dance companies in Greensboro have celebrated and struggled as they present their art.
During Black History Month, we meet three dance company founders — Princess Johnson, Alexandra Joye Warren and Wesley L. Williams.
Alexandra Joye Warren
Warren's mission is to tell the stories of the African Diaspora and explore the Afro-Future through dance.
When did you form your dance company? After living in New York for about seven years, I moved to Greensboro with my husband and infant daughter. After about a year, I became restless with wanting to perform the work I was beginning to create in New York. In New York, I was fortunate to work with women of the Urban Bush Women lineage like Christal Brown and Paloma McGregor and other women choreographers who told powerful stories with their choreography.
In 2014, I decided to create Joyemovement to give professional dancers in this region an opportunity to continue performing professionally.
Why did you want to form a dance company? Around 2013 when the trial of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin was happening, I began to feel enraged. I had all of these questions and frustrations and I needed to work out how I was processing what was happening in the world, what happened in the past and what was continuing to happen. I knew I could only do that through choreography. This was another major reason I began Joyemovement.
What styles of dance did you perform? I focus on performing and creating contemporary/modern dance work. I also infuse West African movement principles into my contemporary work as well.
What dancer do you admire? There are so many. But the first time I saw Alicia Graf Mack when she was in the Dance Theater of Harlem on a field trip to the Kennedy Center when I was in high school I began to follow her career. I've seen her perform many times when she was with the Ailey Company and now she is a mom and the director of dance at Juilliard. I love how she keeps evolving. That inspires me.
What brings you joy? I love to read. When I was a child I always had too much energy and a defiant spirit, so I used to get grounded often for some reason or another. The only thing I was allowed to do was read. I long for those days now of lying in bed with my book light and just reading for hours. I recently joined the Well-Read Black Girl book club chapter in Greensboro. I also love listening to podcasts, snuggling up with my little ones and talking to my husband until the wee hours of the night.
How does this area play a role in your art? One of my mentors once challenged me to think about whether this region would be ready for the work I wanted to create or viable for a dance company. Greensboro has an amazing artists' community of nationally-recognized artists and presenters who are able to bring other nationally-recognized artists either here or nearby. Because of all the universities and colleges and several excellent dance programs from K-12 and in higher ed, dancers want the option to make their home here and not have to go to another city to continue their dance career.
What are you working on right now? I'm currently in development of a three-part piece which will premiere over the next few years. "A Wicked Silence" is a dance exploration of the consequences of the eugenics program in North Carolina. From 1919-1977, there was forced sterilization of patients of publicly-funded institutions that were judged to be "'mentally defective or feeble-minded' by authorities” which later evolved into impoverished populations. This dance performance project will bring these stories to light in the context of new policies that are being proposed, which greatly affect the life and liberty of the poor in the 21st century.
What is your dream for your dance company? My goal is to reach as many audience members as we possibly can. I want to regularly tour the United States and perform internationally. I would like the company to be financially stable to support the dancers as a full-time job with benefits (which currently doesn't happen).
What is the best way for an audience to view a dance performance? I think it depends on the work. I am currently interested in creating intimate settings for my work and also figuring out how to make more come alive outdoors. I like for the audience to feel the dancers' energy and possibly internal emotion. That sometimes happens best in different settings like a bar, an art gallery, in the woods, etc.
Wesley L. Williams Jr.
Suah African Dance Theatre, www.facebook.com/SuahADT
From the time of his high school days, dance has called out to Wesley Williams.
Since 1998, the former college football player has led his own professional dance company — first as Wesley Williams Urban Dance Theatre, then since 2012 as Suah African Dance Theatre.
These days, he does more drumming than dancing in the troupe that performs traditional West African drum and dance along with contemporary African dance. But his company continues to thrive.
Why did you want to form a dance company? To push black art and to release the creative side of me.
What has been the greatest challenge? Finances were a big issue in the beginning, but then finding professional-level dancers who can and will put in the necessary time to be the best they can be. Most dancers don’t know the level of work required to be a professional.
What has been the most unexpected surprise? Artists who want to be paid for their art but don’t know their craft.
What brings you joy? Having a brief thought about something small and in a few months seeing it evolve and performed on stage in a big way.
What dancer do you admire? Youssouf Koumbassa is the only dancer/performer I know from Africa who uses body movement to convey a internal message. He can interpret your insecurities and reflect it back to you in a non-verbal manner. In doing so, he does it with fluidity and conviction. His movement vocabulary challenges individual self-doubt.
What advice would you give other black dance companies? Stop paying artists for what they have done or even what they know. Instead, hold them accountable and pay them for their present time.
How does this area play a role in your art? This area plays a big roll because it doesn’t have a Traditional African dance and drum company readily accessible and available as much as my company. Therefore, work for my company is plentiful right now.
What are you working on right now? My company's very first and North Carolina’s largest African drum and dance conference to date. It will be a three-day event, including A-level dance and drum classes taught by celebrity natives from America and Africa. This event will have a health and wellness fair with African-style vending and vegan food and nutritional information for all to indulge in. This event will take place March 20-22 at the Greensboro Cultural Center.
What is your dream for your dance company? My dream is to build a reputation of bringing the best out of the artist I work with — even when they don’t get it at the time.
What is the best way for an audience to view a dance performance? I think approaching dance performances as theater is more effective when you try and connect what you see and hear with what you see and hear in your everyday world. Depending on how interesting your everyday world is, that’s when you began to journey with the choreographer. Otherwise it’s just entertainment for someone who may or may not want to be entertained. But I feel that everyone wants to go on a journey.
Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet, www.royalexpressions.org
Royal Expressions operates a professional dance company, along with a school of dance and outreach dance programs for the community.
But supporting the professional dance company remains a struggle, even after 10 years. While Royal Expressions' school of dance continues to operate in Battleground Avenue studios, its professional dance company has been on hiatus since February 2018.
Johnson wants to raise more money so that its artists are paid for their studio rehearsal and performance time. "We want to be leaders in creating a dance company that supports its artists," she said.
The good news: Royal Expressions Johnson plans to relaunch the company in June in celebration of Juneteenth.
The holiday commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas, and the emancipation of enslaved African Americans throughout the former Confederate states.
What styles of dance did you perform? We are "contemporary ballet." We use both terms loosely. Ballet is in reference to telling stories through movement, not the style of dance. Contemporary is representative of any and all forms of dance. We do not want to limit ourselves and it keeps the audience surprised. We have included tap, jazz, contemporary, modern, African, ballet and pointe in our repertoire. You never know what style you will see. But what you will see is passion and high energy oozing from our dancers to the audience.
Why did you want to form a dance company? I started Royal Expressions Contemporary Ballet because I wanted to create a place for dancers to explore dance in a supportive learning environment, as well as choreograph shows that are meaningful and thought-provoking. Growing up in Greensboro, I never saw dancers that looked like me or had my story. I didn't get the traditional studio training from 2 years and up. I was an outreach kid. I thrived in dance the best I could through choreography and improvisation, but my technique was lacking.
I was determined to learn as much as I could and went to UNCG to major in dance. After auditioning and not getting in three times, I had a teacher, Eluza Santos, who wrote a letter so that I could continue my dance studies as a major. Through this experience, I was determined to make sure students who have a passion for dance have access to dance whether in a studio setting or in an outreach setting.
This spills over into our professional company that creates professional, paid performance opportunities for artists who would never have that chance. Our company is comprised of moms, students, full-time professionals and wives, ages 23 to 35. Each person came to our company looking for a way to express themselves and be a part of something where they feel they belong. Many started out as recreational adult students and worked their way into our professional company. We have produced six original dance productions that tell stories of the human experience from pursuing dreams, to womanhood, to infertility.
What has been the greatest challenge? Starting a dance company from scratch is not easy. Starting one from scratch as a black woman is even harder. I had great expectations that being a native of Greensboro and having overcome so many obstacles, yet still being able to pursue my ultimate dream, that things would have just fallen in place.
I knew there would be challenges, but never did I consider the challenges I would face as a black woman. I have learned recently that it's important that I share my perspective as a woman of color. It's important that I help people understand the big picture when it comes to arts funding in our city.
ArtsGreensboro has been around for many decades, much of that time segregation still existed and we were fighting for the right to live freely at that time, let alone setting up arts organizations. We must remember that it was only 60 years ago that the Sit-In movement started. My Dad was 2 years old and he saw his fair share of the Civil Rights Movement in his youth. Arts funding at that time was not about funding arts organizations of color. Unfortunately, that system was never dismantled. So we find that in the history of Greensboro there has never been a fully-functioning, thriving, long-term black performing arts company to-date. We have not had an opportunity to take residence in our city and become iconic to our city, much like the N.C. Black Repertory Company in Winston-Salem or the Chuck Davis African American Dance Ensemble in Raleigh.
So my greatest challenge is that there is no blueprint for an African American arts company to succeed in Greensboro. It's up to those of us here and now to speak up and speak out about it, so that those coming behind us can be represented and they can have it just a little bit easier. I have and I've caught flack and it was painful at first, but, I've also been able to garner much more true support and that is who I focus on — those who want to blaze the trail along with us.
What has been the most unexpected surprise? I think the biggest surprise was when we received $14,315 from United Way of Greater Greensboro's Bryan/Community Enrichment and Venture Grants for our outreach programs. My husband actually recorded me opening that letter. I ran a lap around the studio, screaming in excitement. Little did I know that would be followed by some of the hardest years of my career and it would be a long time before I see that level of support again. I'm proud to say we have something in the works on this scale. I can't share details just yet.
What brings you joy? I love cooking and taking walks. These things calm me and put me in my happy place.
What dancer do you admire? This changes so frequently. I've had the pleasure of meeting Carmen De Lavallade once. I also have a relationship with Misty Copeland and Alicia Graf Mack. But right now, I"m on a Camille A. Brown kick!! Camille posted a part of her story about the struggles she endured before "making it big" one time. I had been attending her shows every time she came to NC because she was like me. She started a dance company because she felt she wasn't good enough. She created a space where dancers could not only be good enough, but unlock their fullest potential. I was in awe of her and saw so much of myself in her. So I commented on the post a "thank you," because I was so close to giving up. She reached out to me in my inbox and said, "I wanted to check on you and see how you're doing." That night she gave me perspective and offered me the best encouragement, "If your team is good, then you'll be fine. Don't quit." So not only am I amazed at her work, I'm just amazed at how invested she is in being a mentor to and a representative of the black dance community. She's still pretty responsive to me to this day on Instagram, so I feel pretty special.
What advice would you give other black dance companies? We must support one another. Share one another's progress. Meet up. Attend each other's shows. Be one another's sounding boards. We must understand that our success is dependent on all of us.
How does this area play a role in your art? Greensboro is home. It's always been my desire to do this here, because this is where my dance and life experiences happened.
What are you working on right now? We have two productions in the making. One will be an artists' showcase for Juneteenth. We received $3,000 from ArtsGreensboro for this project. We are excited to showcase a few professional artists in our city in celebration of our freedom. The other project is still in development and more details will be released, but it will take place in October. We are excited to announce a partnership that will make this happen.
What is your dream for your dance company? Our dream is to have a facility that includes six studios for our school, company and for other dance artists to use for learning and creating. The facility will include a small black box theater so that we can produce shows and have multiple runs of the shows. Our artists will be full time. We will have full time staff. We see ourselves as thriving artists in Greensboro.
What is the best way for an audience to view a dance performance? When you go to a dance performance, don't approach it the same you would a theater performance. It's easy to want to do that, but you should really think of it as a visual art gallery instead. Just take it in with your eyes, and with dance, you can also take it in with your ears. Listen to the breathing, the music. See how the movement meets the music. From there let dance speak to you. There is no right or wrong interpretation. The choreographer will create from a place of freedom and the audience receives in that same freedom.