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Gesel Mason Is Celebrating African-American Choreographers on a New Online Platform

Jonathan Hsu

Gesel Mason has serious chutzpah. Eighteen years ago, fresh off a performance career with the Dance Exchange and eager to focus on her own work, she decided to ask some high-profile African-American choreographers—Bebe Miller, Andrea Woods Valdés, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Donald McKayle, David Roussève—if they'd set solos on her. "It was one of those moments where you don't realize what you're asking," she says. "Before I got too in my head, too 'Why-would-I-even-dare-to-ask-these-people?', I just...did." In looking back, she's surprised they all said yes.

That was the beginning of No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers, an evolving collection of solos meant to show the resilience and diversity of black contemporary performance. "The work very clearly shows that, actually, the boundary of the term 'blackness' doesn't really exist. It's wide and risk-taking and sophisticated," says MK Abadoo, a friend and colleague who has performed with Mason.

Since 2001, Mason—while also creating her own work, directing a company and holding teaching positions at many universities—has steadily amassed 11 solos, embedding herself in these choreographers' processes. Now, No Boundaries is evolving once more. Mason is archiving videos of the solos and extensive interviews with their respective choreographers via an online platform that will go live this spring, as part of her new (as of fall 2018) position at The University of Texas at Austin.


"Mr. McKayle, by the way..."

Though she admits to some initial naïveté when asking choreographers if they'd work with her, Mason was strategic about who she asked. She mostly approached people "who I'd had some sort of interaction with," she says, whether that was through her time performing with Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange in Maryland or via one of Mason's own projects. Some interactions were calculated—what she jokingly calls "soft stalking." "I totally did that with Jawole," she says, as an example. Mason went to an audition for Urban Bush Women and spoke to Zollar afterward about the solo project. "With Mr. McKayle," she says, "I saw that he was going to be at the American Dance Festival, so I signed up for the professionals' workshop and took his class. And then I went up to him and said, 'Mr. McKayle, by the way...'"

Mason with Mecca Madyun and Erinn Liebhard in Rennie Harris' "You Are Why!"James Forsberg

Mason conducted extensive interviews with each choreographer who set work on her. "I was asking, 'How is it that they make the work that they make? Why? What's their dance lineage? Who are they as people?'" she says. "Because that was something folks didn't necessarily know—what you don't get to see onstage. It's a window into their lives."

Mason also made a concerted effort to choose black choreographers who represented a wide spectrum. "I started with women choreographers," she says, "and then wanted to get back to male choreographers. I had some young choreographers, and then I wanted to get some people who had some connection to Alvin Ailey's time period—that was Donald McKayle, later on Dianne McIntyre—since I was interested in a generational spread."

"I don't know if I can pull this off."

Learning each solo was an intensive process. Mason would travel to the choreographer and spend between five days and a week, four to six hours a day, committing the movement to memory. "The biggest thing was not ever assuming that I 'had' it," she says. "You have to really remember the nuances and the detail and take the notes and watch the video." But it was often time spent outside the studio that she considered the most meaningful. "What was cool was that, for example, Dianne McIntyre drove me around Cleveland," says Mason. "I'd go out to dinner with these folks and wish I had the camera with me—all of the other stuff I saw that's part of a choreographer's life and making dances was so exciting."

Each solo presented its own challenges. Sometimes they were physical; often, they were emotional. "Each had its thing, where I was like, 'I don't know if I can pull this off,'" Mason says. "David Roussève was so specific; he was choreographing my pupils. With Dianne, there were things I couldn't get, to the extent that she said, 'Let's scrap that and start over.' For Bebe [Miller], my center of gravity was not in the same place as hers. Andrea Woods—she's 5'9" or something and has a super-long Achilles. I don't have that. Reggie Wilson's piece was 20 minutes—that's the longest solo of all. It was about surviving sexual assault. I had to go through these different states."

With Bebe Miller. "My center of gravity was not in the same place as hers," says Mason.Jess Cavender

And then there was the emotional toll of performing the work. Over the 14-year performance term of No Boundaries, Mason performed various combinations of the work at venues like Dance Place in DC (2004, 2006 and 2015), Joyce SoHo in New York (2007), Links Hall in Chicago (2008) and the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia (2009). Yet it wasn't until her friend (and University of Florida dean of the College of Arts) Onye Ozuzu asked how she was handling it that Mason even gave that aspect a thought. "She was like, 'Who do you have backstage helping you with the emotional labor?'" says Mason. "I said, 'um...'" Eventually, she recruited Abadoo for this role and adapted her backstage regimen accordingly. "I had my foam roller," says Mason. "My walnuts, my oatmeal. MK asked, 'What kind of music do you like to listen to? What are your favorite scents?' She'd have lavender and vanilla backstage. We'd do meditation practices together." That approach particularly came in handy when Mason learned Donald McKayle had passed away 30 minutes before she performed his solo, Saturday's Child. "That was a huge shock," she says. But she was able to access an even deeper level of investment in the piece and the project at large. "I felt like, 'This is the reason that I'm doing this,'" says Mason. "What a great way to celebrate his life—by performing his work."

"I started to imagine what the No Boundaries archive could be."

In April 2018, Mason performed seven of the solos at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn—for the last time, she vowed. "The idea was to capture these solos with a multicamera shoot, to get the best footage," she says. That performance footage comprises an important part of her No Boundaries online archive, a project that UT Austin offered considerable support for—which played a big part in her decision to move from Colorado to Texas. "They have really established archives and libraries here at UT Austin," she says. "I started to imagine what the No Boundaries archive could be, other ways that this work could live on."

At UT Austin, Mason works with a growing team, including archivists and African-American historians, who are helping her transition from what's been primarily a physical performance archive to a digital one. "Sometimes, we forget that dance is of the moment. When we think about anthropology, dance is the reflection of a culture. I'm curious how these solos translate, how they point to something larger."

Jess Cavender

Now that the project has evolved, there are new questions for Mason to address. "I'm not handing a box of material over to somebody," she says. "I'm the one doing the shaping—the one who's giving the audience what they're going to see. What's going to tell the story?" There's also been the experience of seeing her body change over the last 15 years. "I'm not 15 years younger," says Mason. "What does it mean to be a physical repository that's degrading? How do you then keep the essence or story alive when these things are literally slipping through your fingers?"

"I still recognize how important it was, the live performance," she says, noting how rare it would be to see seven African-American choreographers featured in the same program. She's hopeful the archive will spark inquiry and study for generations to come. "Maybe it'll be a repository for African-American work—a go-to place," she says. Right now, she and her team are still figuring out what the user experience of the archive will be. "We're thinking about having a little icon that's me, where you click and watch how I learned a piece," she says. "Or you can have your own journey: I have hours and hours of interviews with Rennie Harris. I'll show you five minutes, but you could also go in and watch unedited footage of him talking."

The archive isn't the only reason she chose UT Austin. She's also helping to shape the university's new master's program in dance and social justice. "I was like, 'That has my name on it,'" she says. "It was exciting, coming in on the ground floor of something new." She also developed a legacy class in relation to the No Boundaries archive. "What does it mean to be archiving this material? Who gets to tell that story? How is gender embedded in the archiving system? Who has access to the material?" she asks. "As artists and storytellers, the body is an archive. You're performing the archive, embodying the archive, becoming a dancing legacy."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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