“Our communities need to see our artists doing their art.” ~ Senay Dennis (aka Refa 1)
As a transplant from New York (8 years and counting), I have come to expect the performing arts to take over the landscape during warm weather in major cities. New York sets the bar with Summer Stage across 5 boroughs. L.A. organizes Grand Performances in spite of its urban sprawl. Chicago, with only 2.5 real warm months, has a jam-packed schedule at Millenium Park. San Francisco’s approach is a little disjointed but at least the effort is there: Stern Grove and Outside Lands fill a niche. And in SF, when all else fails, there’s always someone performing at BART & MUNI’s busiest stations.
So what’s going on in Oakland?
Oakland is home to some 90 parks, (compare that to Brooklyn’s 39). With so much public space, why are we only graced with two days for the Art and Soul Festival, four days of Sundays in the Redwoods, and a smattering of lunchtime performances as part of Sweet Summer Sounds? In the debate around encouraging arts appreciation in youth, why are we not making it simple, direct, and affordable? While we’re at it, why not change the focus in favor of involving whole families through a dynamic network of outdoor, neighborhood-based performances that span the range from music to dance to theater?
Outdoor performances (usually) = free performances.
The economics don’t add up. Nor should they, according to Arlene Goldbard’s urging that we “start with open eyes: refuse to pretend this debate is about money; explain how the arts are being used to send a political message.” Oakland’s political message is a charged one that mimics the overall United States emphasis to exercise control and boundaries rather than encouraging diverse communities to connect around public performance. What if, post-Mesherle verdict, the City of Oakland spent less on overtime for law enforcement officials and invited Turf Feinz and Youth Uprising to engage the public in a dance demonstration at Frank Ogawa Plaza?
What if Oakland committed to outdoor performances as much as is its highly-publicized restoration projects? CBS Outdoor contributed $6.5 million in billboard revenue so that Oakland School of the Arts could pre-pay its first seven years of rent to the Fox Theater. What if the City negotiated with CBS Outdoor to use a portion of the billboard’s continued revenue to support site-specific performance activating the Uptown Sculpture Garden?
In the midst of the furor around Mayor Quan’s most recent push to cut Oakland’s arts funding, we also need to look at our neighbors’ understanding of “the arts”.
I would bet that the majority of Oakland-ers, like the majority of Americans, don’t define themselves as artists or see “the arts” as vital to their lives. Even in the Bay Area, where we are supposedly so culturally-literate, I listen closely to the subtext when young second-generation business owners think artists are people who just want to “live off society” and graduates of Berkeley High are instantly cynical when a new acquaintance describes herself as “an artist.” What if Oakland’s residents, encouraged by the presence of dance and music almost in their backyards, became more active cultural stewards, showing just as much enthusiasm for new bars and restaurants as the performance-packed but seemingly one-off Uptown Unveiled?
Performance artist, Adesola Akinleye, discussing the overlapping elements of bodies and buildings, writes:
“… The person who watches dancing does none of the physical work themselves but in perceiving the performance they experience the rhythm of it as though it were in their own body… I see choreography working in such a way that the audience becomes aware of their own feeling of the aesthetic of the body in space. I aim for my work to continue to be alive within the space when the dancing bodies have finished; for the dance to have left a trace.”
Dance demands a kinesthetic empathy, a way of experiencing art bodily simply by watching. Another video featuring Turf Feinz is “RIP Rich D”. The intense and simple beauty of humans finding an outlet for mourning through movement has accumulated over 2.5 million views on YouTube. Such empathy has the potential to pierce the layers of urban existence and bring together Oakland’s diverse yet self-segregated neighborhoods. Especially if we commit to it in public.
Eboni Senai Hawkins is the Producing Artistic Director of see. think. dance.
After valuable experiences in arts administration (Jacob’s Pillow Dance, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet), she took a leap of faith and started working directly with the art and artists she loved.
Inspired by the opportunity to present intimate performance in a low-pressure environment, Eboni curated a short program for the June 2007 Mission Arts Performance Project (MAPP) hosted by the Red Poppy Art House, featuring dancers Antoine Hunter and Rashad Pridgen.
The response from the primarily visual arts/music audience was overwhelming and in collaboration with Todd Brown and the Red Poppy’s Street-Level Curating Program, Eboni established see. think. dance. to produceTruth + Beauty (November 2007), Word. Warrior. Music. Movement. (March 2008), and Urban Art Sessions(May 2008).
May 2008 also marked the formation of and the first performative installment by The Intimacy Project, an ongoing collaboration between artists/educators who draw creative inspiration from their connection to the African continent and are deeply invested in social change through the re-integration of the mind and the body. Losing a dancer at the last moment and concerned with the flow of the evening’s program, Eboni overcame her fear of the stage to perform a duet with actor Kwesi Hutchful, a movement composition incorporating media installation, tempest tossed by lauren woods and layered with a recorded version of Intro to Kemetic Science by David Boyce.
In 2010, heavily influenced by the REVIVE workshop, Eboni created the annual REflect film series as part of the Black Choreographers’ Festival: Here and Now. Subtitled “The Black Dancing Body on Film”, REflect mines the rich visual history of Black dancers and choreographers on film through a dynamic selection of documentaries, feature films, and shorts.
Don’t miss Reframing the Arts : Advocating for the Public Culture at Oakland Museum of California (OMCA)
on Saturday, April 16! Register here.