Graffito Works: Improvisation Leading Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis

by Gregory King for The Dance Journal

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Said to be “the first comprehensive museum overview of this influential artist, who was a pivotal figure in American art, a participant in the Harlem art community, and a politically –conscious activist,” the exhibition Procession: The Art of Norman Lewis (1909-1979) opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on March 9th.

Born to Bermudan immigrants, Norman Wilfred Lewis was a native New Yorker who grew up in Harlem where he was a lifelong resident. His experience with racial inequality from an early age, had a major impact on his work life causing him to focus on the struggles of black Americans in his art. [1]

It is said that in the 1940’s, Lewis began to explore abstraction and in a 1968 interview, expressed his skepticism about the power of art to effect change. Eventually, his artwork shifted from from social realism to Abstract Expressionism.

Over 90 works of art and writing, spanning four decades, were on display and dancers from the improvisation based Graffito Works, acted as vehicles of interpretation to the art viewing experience. Eleven dancers, dressed in solid colors, painted the space with their bodies. Sometimes they acted as extensions of the artwork based on the color they were wearing, or at other times they worked intuitively to imitate the shapes portrayed in the pieces.

Knowing Lewis was an African American artist, my interest was peaked by the fact that there were no African Americans in the group of improvisers – people of color (Asian, Latina), but no one black. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about black art represented through non-black bodies but nonetheless, I welcomed the experience I was about to have.

For one hour the dancers moved from piece to piece, creating divergence from or visual aids to Lewis’ works. I secretly wondered if choosing a piece of artwork to interact with, was left up to the dancers or had been pre-planned.

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With their backs to me, dancers Jung Woong Kim and Marion Ramirez stood looking at a painting (title unknown 1953), as if trying to make sense of it. Ramiriez glided in front of Kim and a carefully timed improvisational game played out. He moved towards the painting and she moved towards him. Their collaboration appeared to be a conversation, but instead of waiting to speak after the other person, they would finish each others sentences. No moment so evident of this fact as when Kim claim the space, as Ramirez stood on one leg. As soon as Kim found a moment to pause, Ramirez continued the flow, as if her body was in motion the entire time.

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In what appeared to be a planned trio, three dancers mirrored each other, spoking and arching as they changed shapes. Dancers Beau Hancock, Meg Foley, and Loren Groenendaal, wore beige, purple, and blue – the same color scheme as the painting [title unknown I (Carnivale aka Tounament), 1958]. They were harmonious with the artwork, finding moments to touch one another before darting into the space, waiting for the others to pull them back in.

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The Head (mid-1940s), a sculpture that appeared strikingly sad, stood alone a one of the few pieces that wasn’t on canvas. Dancer Asimina Chremos sat on the floor, motionless.

There was something robust about her still energy; a grandness that was unseen. The energy intensified when she started touching her face; as if she were copying the lines that were present on the sculpture. In grave contrast, dancer Loren Groenendaal conquered the space with kinesthetic vigor. She galloped all the while making sharp angles with her arms until she modified her dynamics, making room for a freer, more relaxed energy to invade her former briskly moving body. Her vibrant display made me fixate on her textured form, yet I was denied confirmation with regards to which piece of work influenced her.

My prior concerns regarding black art being interpreted by non-black bodies receded as this performance provided equitable hope of integration – at least while I was in the space; in that moment.



All photos courtesy of Graffito Works in collaboration with PAFA

About Gregory King

Gregory King received his MFA in Choreographic Practice and Theory from Southern Methodist University. In addition, he is certified in Elementary Labanotation. His dance training began in Washington DC at the Washington Ballet and later at American University. He went on to participate in the Horton Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress. His training continued at the prestigious institutions such as The Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Alvin Ailey School. Gregory has performed with The Washington Ballet, Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, New York Theatre Ballet, Donald Byrd /The Group, The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, New York City Opera, and Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.

His desire to integrate social activism into his choreography began with his graduate thesis, where he used the platform to push the conversation about homophobia and heterosexism. He is a lover of movement exploration and describes his aesthetic as a classical base with a theatrical flair.

He has taught at Boston Ballet, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Texas Ballet Theatre. Additionally, he has served as a teaching artist in public schools in and around Dallas, as Resident Guest artist at Temple University and Assistant Professor of Dance at Dean College. Recently, Gregory received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the National Society of Leadership and Success. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Dance and Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellow at Swarthmore College where he teaches Modern and continues to use his choreography as a means for social change.

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  1. It was a performance where walking around the space what also a part of the show. Interacting with works or art that impacted the art world and beyond. I’m sure you’ll have other opportunities.

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