by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal
Christopher Huggins, former Alvin Ailey dancer, now full time choreographer- teacher and, on occasion, at 51, guest soloist, is one of the most in-demand choreographers in the US, but has been working more in other countries lately, so it is a bit of a coup that he is in Philadelphia again this year. Huggins has been shuttling back and forth between New York to Philly the past few weeks to Philadanco studios in preparation for their program paying tribute to his artistry.
In a wide-ranging, candid interview this week in the lobby of The Double Tree Hotel in Center City, Huggins started by remarking that he hadn’t been back in Philly since 2010, forgetting that he was here just earlier this year for the PIFA Festival when Philadanco premiered his intergalactic epic The Big Bang!
When I remind him that he was here earlier this year for the PIFA, he held his head and snapped to attention “Wake up Christopher, yes, the last one before PIFA, was Bolero in 2010. Actually, I just restaged in South Africa at the Cape Dance Company. I was just reading a review of it this morning and it went very well there too,” he said.
Without the benefit of coffee, he then weighed in on a number of subjects- corporate America, backstage battles, the Koch Brothers, politicians and other select topics will have be saved for a book he hopes to write.
But for now- here are the sections just about dance
Creative give and take
During The Big Bang! run last spring, Philadanco artistic director Joan Myers Brown approached Huggins about the tribute concert. In an email to me earlier this week, Brown said she wanted to honor Huggins artistry because, “There is a dearth of young black choreographers that are doing interesting work. All of it looks alike or is full of tricks influenced by the TV shows or dance competitions. I have run the gamut right now and although people send me their videos, none really have extensive vocabularies, “Brown explained,
“I like to support young, or emerging artists but all the predominately African American groups are using the same few and we all look alike,” Brown writes and “Christopher is the only one I see right now who has prospects of longevity. His work is always a surprise, from concept to content. (With) some others, it isn’t identifiable, you never know where Christopher is going…” A thought that may have been on Brown’s mind when she told him that Philadanco wanted to honor his work.
Huggins admits that he “didn’t really want to do the program at first. “I always think that when people are getting noticed in this way with awards or citations that they are letting you know you are getting old, and I thought, oh no…plus…there’s too much work,” he said.
There was another potential problem for him “ Joan was thinking of doing the full ballets of mine that Philadanco already does. Which I thought would be too much for the dancers, you know, too heavy hitting. Those full pieces are all closers and to do four works on a program, I didn’t want to participate in that,” he explained. “I was willing if they would let me do a body of my work. If you want to show my work, then really show it, the different types of things that I’ve done. I don’t do the same things for different companies.”
So Brown agreed to his conditions and the line-up includes three rep piece and three new to the company, which together reflects the choreographer’s range. The program has excerpts from Huggins’ The List, Blue, The Big Bang! and Love Is… ;When Dawn Comes and Enemy Behind the Gate are being performed in their entirety. The compromise though put everyone at the company on high gear notice and Huggins said it has been indeed, very hectic in the lead-up weeks.
“’Danco was still on tour in November and then they had to go out of town to perform the James Brown Project (which premiered at the Apollo in New York).
“Then they were off again during Thanksgiving, so and there has been very limited rehearsal time. To pull off three ballets that they’ve never done and three that they haven’t been doing recently and in…less than four weeks. It’s been two years since they’ve done Blue for instance,” he notes that Blue was originally for nine men, “but we only have eight, so there is already a body missing.”
When I suggest that everything will turn out, he rolls his eyes and says “that’s what everyone keeps telling me. But, he is quick to add-
“Course, Joan always keeps a strong ensemble no matter what. She’s very particular about the caliber of dancer she hires, especially her men, she keeps that standard. She’s always had amazing dancers, many of whom have gone on to the Ailey Company. Her company was feeding the Ailey Company for years. That’s not a secret. She was training them and they were stealing,” he said. “The caliber of work that she was bringing into the rep and the work ethic she instills is impeccable. She demands it. I don’t blame her, because she works so hard herself.”
Show me the dance money
Huggins looks onto Broad Street and recalls that he stayed in the same hotel when he was performing with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at the Academy of Music in the 80s. Huggins characterizes Brown as an innovator and forward thinker. “Mr. Ailey was like that too. He saw his company way beyond what it was in 1958 and he was right.”
Huggins said he used to teach two classes a day, every day for 6 days a week for 16 years. “That kept me in great shape though. And I was still dancing a lot. Then the choreography career kicked in more, so I don’t move as much. I still demonstrate as much as I can, and of course, I work in the studio with my assistants when I create. I have their bodies to do it on and I regret that. As a choreographer I like to be able to show what I want as much as possible.”
“I’m a workaholic and so is Joan. Too much so, not that she can’t do it. She shouldn’t have to. Still dedicated to the company and gives 2000 percent. She’s such a national treasure and I don’t think she gets the respect she really deserves. Or the money. The money is ridiculous,” Huggins “Dance is the most least respected art.”
“Her company has had very scary moments not long ago. She almost threw in the towel. Financially, it is still teetering. These days, one wrong move and it’s over. Who knows how she deals with that and still runs a company. And here she is all these years later still standing, what more does she need to do to be funded properly and to be given the respect that is so due to her. “ Huggins thinks the city should do more.
And speaking of Philadelphia, the choreographer noted that he has been hounded, he says, for city taxes by the city and even when he pays, they don’t stop. “Because I work in the city, they treat me like a business, as if I have a business here in the city of Philadelphia, I’m an artist who comes in and out of Philadelphia. I’m just an artist who comes in for a couple of days and goes home. They are unrelenting when they want their four dollars from the pennies I make here.”
Huggins assures me that I can keep that on the record “Because they need to know…remember I said I name names. …pennies,” he fumes, half laughing and they are hounding me for their four dollars. And then when I pay it they don‘t do the paperwork. They tell me I have to produce a receipt. They don‘t follow their own trail.”
(“Oh, and the greedy music companies“)
Huggins is known for dynamic music choices in his ballet and what guides him, he says is “pretty simple, I have to like it enough to listen to it over and over. But I have a strong relationship with my movement and the music. Under Mr. Ailey for you becomes more attuned to the music that you are dancing to, I think. He was so musical, he heard things no one else would hear within the music. He would have to point something out to me and then I would hear what he meant, but by putting my ear to the speaker.”
Huggins used music by premier contemporary composer Steve Reich for Enemy Behind the Gate. “Enemy was very expensive, but it’s half the driving force behind it.”
He recently choreographed Anointed for the Ailey Company and scored it to songs by Moby and “They came to me and asked me to pick other music because it was too expensive. But I just said, well this is what I want. Actually one section was composed for me, by a friend of mine, Sean Clemens. I was able to get him to compose a piece that stood right next to Moby and it was exquisite. It fit like a glove. But you will never see this work again.”
Working with a composer is something Huggins “never had the luxury of doing before. Hopefully I will be able to work with a composer to get exactly what I’d like. But there is so much good music out there, and it’s too expensive to use. Every time you push play, Boosey and Hawkes company goes ka-ching. The publishing companies are the hawks and sharks.”
“I have been working in South Africa for three years. I would move there, if I had the means. I love the dancers and their work ethics matches mine. It’s hard to believe now that there was Apartheid in South Africa, especially since racism is still so rampant in the US. And in South Africa you can’t imagine now, that there was that type of segregation there. There are interracial marriages everywhere, people just living their lives. It’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Cape Dance Company, run by Debbie Turner, she has the utmost admiration for JB. Debbie originally saw Enemy Behind the Gate in 2007 at Summer Stage in Central Park and she fell in love with it. She tracked me down on Facebook three years later, because she wanted to perform it. She saw a comment he made on a mutual friend’s news feed and sent me a message- How would you like to come to South Africa- and I replied “When.”
“Then I saw all these stunning photos of her dancers. Since I’ve been going there, I have learned so much more. Apartheid actually started to loose its power and grip in the 80s. Things started to get much better. Debbie Turner’s dream actually, is to bring Philadanco to SA and perform at the Cape Town Opera House when she celebrates the 20th anniversary of her company in 2015. to do a super Enemy with Philadanco perform with her company.”
When I went to the Apartheid Museum, I was mesmerized. Actually moved me and struck similar chords as when I went to the museums in Hiroshima museum in Japan and the Holocaust Museum, which inspired the List.
The List excerpt may be the most challenging piece on the program for the dancers, because the choreographic style is so different from Huggins previous work with Philadanco. A dance-theater work about the Holocaust.
Huggins described its origins- “It was originally done with Reed Dance in Pittsburgh, it had started out as a class combination and she asked me to develop it. Then recently, at the August Wilson Center, which is now closed because of poor funding, was doing an exhibit Blacks and Jews, and the period was during the 1936 Olympics and decommissioned the List for that exhibit.“ Huggins then developed it further on the Dance Alloy.
“I had lots of Jewish friends growing up in Massachusetts and being around Jewish culture. Also I studied the war and European history in high school. I still find it fascinating. I want to know what it was like and how people lived and how that generation is so strong. They are so amazing to me. My grandparents and aunts lived those WWII years; I had to do this piece, for me. It’s a dance-theater piece and is very challenging for the dancers. It is out of their comfort zone, definitely.”
Huggins is pessimistic for The List to have the opportunity to develop it fully.” For the Philadanco concert, he only had the time to do just an excerpt. Mr. Ailey made dance-theater and it’s innate for me. I had to do this piece for me. I still haven’t had funding to do it as a full ballet. How do you tell that narrative in 20 minutes? You don’t, you can’t.”
Challenging working conditions are par for the course for an independent choreographer, and Huggins is realistic about the consequences to the art form.
“There was no time or money. The dancers are assigned and they basically learn things until I come in and put the finishes on it. It puts a lot of pressure on the dancers. The creative process tends to be destroyed. No time to get the meat and grit of the work on the dancers. A lot of the black dance companies are like that, and it’s sad, because again they don’t get the funding for choreographers to hang around.”
No time for the creative synergy to emerge, I suggest-
“Synergy…the word I used last night with the Philadanco men in Blue- Where’s the synergy…where is it. Because they haven’t had time to connect to each other. Blue has no counts, so it’s all done with visuals and breath and timing and feeling each other.”
You have to use different modalities depending on the work you are doing. Blue is so different than The List. Which is why I wanted to do different things on this program. You also can’t drive dancers into the ground.”
The closer for the Huggins concert is Enemy Behind The Gate, exemplar of Huggins’ full-on breakneck style. “That piece originated in Norway. The 3rd section I originally for the graduating class at the ballet school at the Norwegian National Ballet in 2000,” he recalled.
“I had it and was just sitting there. Then I was asked to do something for Danco on Danco by one of my previous students, Ahmad Maverick Lemons, at the Ailey School, he just wanted to dance He had just gotten into Danco and I was in Philly teaching for two weeks for the summer course in 2001. So I said ok, we can do this six-minute piece Enemy. After it went over so well at the Painted Bride, then Joan asked me for a bigger work.”
Huggins acknowledges that Enemy now is a signature work for Philadanco. “It kind of sucks you in, chews you up and spits you out. I still watch it in the studio and can tell that it still hasn’t lost its luster. Which is weird after 12 years, things can get dull, so you have to polish it up a bit…but, they dance it with great aplomb.” Huggins said.