by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal
In a wide-ranging interview from her home in West Philadelphia, Philadanco founding artistic director Joan Myers Brown talks about the dance industry during the pandemic, racial equality, opening schools and what was supposed to be a victory-lap year of special performances and celebration to mark her company’s 50th anniversary and the 60th for her school of dance.
The celebrations started in January 2020 on Broad Street when over 800 attendees of the 32nd International Association of Blacks in Dance convened in Philadephia, in no small part to honor Brown who established the organization in the late 80s for a small group of African-American companies. They had the shared goals to build artistic, academic, and commercial equity for dance companies of color. Brown has been a strong advocate and voice calling for dance companies to “look more like America.”
There was electricity in the air on IABD’s opening night when Brown strolled into the lobby of Merriam Theatre, elegant as ever, moving through the crowd chatting with friends, colleagues, alums, fans, all who were there waiting to embrace ‘Aunt Joan’ or JB as she is affectionately known. There was a palpable sense of dance occasion and was indeed a glittering event to launch the Danco’s year.
FLASHBACK TO 2019
“Everything was falling into place”
In 2019, Philadanco was awarded a $420,000 endowment, and for the first time in 60 years, Brown could restructure some of the administrative work of her company. Despite rumors of her retirement, Brown would now be able to focus on being the artistic director and with that role, the creative end of Philadanco and the three apprentice companies. For once, with funding now secured, Brown didn’t have to worry about debt. “Going into 2020, everything was falling into place. All the touring was ready, and I renewed our contract at the Kimmel Center”.
Brown had also had also been awarded the New York Dance industry’s 2019 Bessie Award, “for helping shape American dance over six decades spent choreographing, training, and mentoring dancers at Philadanco.” With that accolade, special performances were already underway. Philadanco performed one of their signature works ‘La Valse’ in a triumphant performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra at annual residency at Saratoga Springs.
Back in Philadelphia, the company was already in high-gear rehearsing their program of four commission premieres titled Fast/Forward for their spring run at The Kimmel Center. Brown, who never rests, was already starting to conceive the official gala anniversary celebrations that would be a city wide event but have national and international reach.
A concert was also added at the Merriam Theater called Genesis with performances of Philadanco’s student and apprentice ensembles, as well as the professional company. Guest artists included Hamilton star Leslie Odom, Jr. who sang, while Ailey star and former Danco dancer Hope Boykin performed. To finish up 2019, Philadanco mounted an expanded version of The Xmas Philes, for a 20th-anniversary performance run at the Annenberg Center.
Last winter Brown recalled she “felt like I had a ticket to ride the gravy train for once….and then everything was gone.”
THE VIRUS HITS
“You can’t even make plans”
In early March, the company was on the first leg of what was proving to be a very successful tour in Europe. With nine more cities to go to, the company was in Switzerland when without warning, the spread of Covid-19 caused countries to go into lockdown, events to be canceled, and travel to be restricted. The virus was spreading throughout Europe like wildfire.
“My daughter called and told me that we had to get out as soon as possible or we’d have to stay there for 30 days. I didn’t want to be stranded in Europe with fifteen people with no jobs and nowhere to stay. Somehow my daughter made the emergency arrangements for us to fly out…so I told my dancers, pack your bags and be ready to leave at any time. We were in Switzerland and had to go back to Germany to fly out. It all took a day and a half, we couldn’t fly into Philly, and had to land in Newark.”
Brown had been keeping up with the medical warnings on how transmissible and deadly the virus was. Right away, everyone in the company was required to take every precaution necessary as the pandemic escalated. “We were the only ones on the flight who wore masks,” she notes. Once stateside, they had to self-quarantine, warned by US officials that they would be checked if they didn’t abide by the restrictions.
The company got back to Philadelphia healthy and safe, but like the rest of the Philly dance community, they had to confront the new reality of not only closed venues but closed studios with no safe way to train, rehearse or work in person. For Joan Myers Brown and her staff, she had to make quick hard decisions with the primary goal of keeping everyone safe.
“We got out of Europe and got here”
And with the spread of the virus and new restrictions, Brown decided to close the school and the studio, doing what she could to ensure the dancers would continue to be paid.
Realizing that whatever politicians were saying about opening theaters, “Things are being canceled until next year and who knows what’s going to happen if it gets worse,” Brown said. “Fortunately, I had enough money to pay for the company for full touring.” She also secured the first round of Payment Protection Plan federal funds for business owners, so her dancers could be paid through July.
While everything is on indefinite hold for public performances in Philadelphia, Brown is doing what she can to keep Philadanco together online. The dancers have continued to rehearse the Fast Forward choreography remotely. Brown said that the concert program will be ready to go whenever the stages are open again.
“The new next”
Joan Myers Brown at 89 has faced and triumphed over much adversity in her life and career. After years of fighting for change in the industry, she is philosophical about what to do now. She has battled systemic racism, insured that her dancers got paid for their work with year-long contracts, and has provided inestimable guidance and leadership in arts education. She has every intention of being ready for what she calls “the new next.”
During this period of self-quarantine, she has set up three work stations in her home just to stay connected and to keep with Philadanco business. “The kitchen is my office, my living room for the school, my dining room for the company. I go from the Ipad to the phones to the computer to stay connected with every aspect of the business”.
“I told my dancers…try to think of your alternative career. Maybe think about what you wanted to do when you can’t dance anymore. Think about just taking care of yourself. “
Brown is taking her own advice during these uncertain times. “I remember during the Depression my mother was an artist who worked in the Works Project Administration (WPA). I always wanted to be an artist until I got involved with dance. She used oils, but I really like watercolors. I always told myself that I would get back to it when I get ‘older’ (drawing out the word with a laugh). I’ll go back to my artwork…well, as soon as I get my dancers situated, I’m going to get back to it.”
“They seem to be doing ok. Some of the dancers are already doing other things, one is teaching dance, one is teaching math,” for now, she notes they are still “on our studio schedule online with ZOOM as if we were in the studio. We’re in conversation with the choreographers for the ‘Fast Forward’ program”, which Brown is hoping will be the company’s first performances whenever The Kimmel reopens. “Meanwhile, I’ll keep trying to find more money, whatever we need to keep them on unemployment. And be ready for any project that we can pick-up along the way.”
Brown is also considering the options for the school as Pennsylvania enters a new phase of reopening district schools. At this point, Brown acknowledged, “it’s a hard call and I’m still trying to consider what it would really mean to reopen my school. I considered having classes with ten and maintaining social distancing.” In reality, Brown noted she would need to have “30 people in the class to be able to earn enough tuition to pay the teachers.”
Still, she got estimates on what it would cost to adequately disinfect and deep clean the four floors of her studios, an average of $2000 per day. The real deciding factor for her comes down to what would be safe at all times for the students, teachers, dancers, and office staff. “If it takes a year out, at least I know I’m not jeopardizing anybody’s life,” she assured.
Despite all reports, Brown is not yet convinced that returning to the studio would not put her dancers and students at risk. But, as much as possible, she intends on staying ready to begin again, if and when the virus is under control.
She remembers how hard hit the dance world was during the AIDS epidemic and how everybody stuck together to get through it. As for the current crisis, she has some brutal (and hilarious) comments about how the current administration is handling it.
ON INEQUALITY IN DANCE
“wait and see mode”
The issue of systemic racism in the dance world has recently been brought to the forefront of discussions with the murder of George Floyd and the igniting of worldwide protests by the BlackLivesMatter movement.
In dance, structural racism is still very much a reality for dancers of color. It has been an issue that Brown has fought to change for decades. When questioned as to whether this will be a transformation era, specifically in the ballet world, Brown responds by saying, “I am in a “wait and see” mode after year in and year out, time after time, hoping. I have notes from 1960, 82, 99, and other meetings on DEI (DANCE/EQUITY/INCLUSION) (They’ve) got to prove it to me,” adding “It’s always a wait and see if there are any lasting changes. The ballet auditions at IABD- placed a lot of black kids in training programs and scholarships, but they didn’t put a lot of dancers into jobs. There were two black dancers hired by Memphis Ballet, which I was very happy to see. How much will they be used, you never know.”
“There are so many things”
Joan Myers Brown makes the most of every day, starting with a daily hour plus walk, “always with a mask on!”
For six decades Brown has blazed trails for dancers, choreographers, companies, and her community. When asked about her the most endearing memories, she offered, “There are so many things. I have to say my school. It was already 10 years old when I started Philadanco, and actually, we had planned to have 65 ‘Danco alumni coming back practicing and dancing with our kids this year. So I was excited about that.”
“The first time going was to Europe was very exciting,” even though, she had to send a board member in her place, because of other business at home that needed her full attention.
“Being selected to be the resident modern dance company at the Kimmel Center and the first time performing at the Joyce Theater in New York.” And she quickly adds, “oh, and of course being at the White House.” Referring to being awarded the 2012 National Medal of the Arts which was presented to her by Barack and Michelle Obama.
“So, I didn’t get to be the ballerina that I wanted to be”
The “50/60” anniversary year is canceled. There will be no gala performances, parties, celebrations, celebrities or champagne. But nothing can take away from what Brown has built in Philadelphia. Her artistic vision is celebrated every day in the lives of four generations of dance artists, teachers, choreographers, who have and will change dance in America.
When I asked if Brown was feeling disappointed or sad about missing out on a championship season, Brown paused a moment and said “I’m sad for the world. People are dying, people are sick and have lost everything with no recourse. I’m fortunate. I’m alive, I’m healthy, I have my brain and I’m able to continue.”
“I didn’t get to be the ballerina that I wanted to be, but I was able to make other people achieve that. I’ve had a great run. Every now, when I stand in the back of the theater at a Philadanco performance in the Kimmel Center and see the crowd stand on their feet, it’s amazing to me”.
“I’ve had a great run”.