Ralph Lemon

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April 18, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

Ralph Lemon emerged as a major choreographic talent in the late 1980’s. With an unerring instinct for the perfectly pitched gesture, he revealed an unsuspected sensuousness within the formal rigor of post-modern dance. Critical acclaim, plum commissions and prestigious awards followed him into the 90’s.

But when it came to conferences, festivals and articles on ”black dance,” Mr. Lemon was rarely included. He saw one African-American luminary walk out on his work. Another said she forbade her dancers to attend his concerts. Implicitly and explicitly, this African-American choreographer from a white suburb of Minneapolis was accused of betraying his race.

Looking back, Mr. Lemon acknowledges that his work was, as he put it, ”Eurocentric.” For a decade, the Ralph Lemon Company was the prototypical downtown dance troupe: abstract, formalist and technical. Except for the choreographer, and the occasional dancer, his company, which he disbanded in 1995, was exclusively white.

Now things are different. In his new work, ”Geography,” which begins three performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Majestic Theater on Wednesday, Mr. Lemon’s dancers and drummers are all black: six are from performance ensembles in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast; one is a Guinean griot who lives in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, and one is an African-American ”house” dancer (a blend of forms from hip-hop to modern) from Richmond.
To Mr. Lemon, 45, these performers represent a range of locations on the diasporic route between Africa and America, and they have provided him with the means to undertake a full-scale inquiry into his own racial identity. ”Mirrors of my black self,” he calls them. Their ambitious collaboration charts the labyrinthine map, or ”geography,” of Mr. Lemon’s long-denied and still ambivalent relationship to African and African-American cultures. ”This dance,” he said, ”is my ‘Revelations.’ ”

That work, choreographed by Alvin Ailey in 1960, endures as the touchstone of the African-American repertory. (”Revelations” will be on the program at City Center, where the Ailey company just opened its winter season.) As Ailey recalled in his autobiography, it was part of a plan to develop a black folk-dance company and embodied his interest in ”projecting the black image properly” and establishing dance as ”a popular form, wrenched from the hands of the elite.”

Almost 40 years later, African-American choreographers continue to explore the same question, one that predates Ailey and even the modern-dance pioneer Katherine Dunham. It was first posed publicly in 1933 as the topic of a forum at the 135th Street Y.W.C.A. in Harlem: ”What Shall the Negro Dance About?”

That question is not as readily answered by Mr. Lemon as it was by Ailey. At the same time that ”Revelations” was winning audiences with its theatricalization of slave spirituals, an artistic revolution was under way that produced a new generation of African-American choreographers. The term black yielded to the more culturally specific African-American, and the expressionist genre of modern dance gave way to the formalist vision of post-modern dance.

Choreographers like Mr. Lemon, Blondell Cummings, Garth Fagan, Bill T. Jones, Bebe Miller and Gus Solomons Jr. did not follow in the footsteps of Ailey, who focused on vernacular African-American themes. Nor did they emulate Arthur Mitchell, whose Dance Theater of Harlem inserted black bodies into the traditionally Euro-American genre of ballet, or Chuck Davis, who restaged African dances.

In the 90’s, the question of black identity in dance has been further complicated by a shift from the paradigm of ”art for art’s sake” to one of ”identity politics,” which adapts formalist techniques in order to critique the exclusivity of mainstream culture.

The sold-out house at last year’s Town Hall debate between the African-American playwright August Wilson and the Euro-American critic Robert Brustein demonstrated that artists were as essential to the national conversation on race, culture and politics as were the pundits and policy makers. African-American choreographers like Ronald K. Brown, Donald Byrd, David Rousseve and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, co-founder of Urban Bush Women, are making inroads into the investigation of the role of race in America, now formally institutionalized by President Clinton’s Initiative on Race and Reconciliation.

Choreographers are increasingly exploring the limits and possibilities of existing dance forms to address African-American issues, as Mr. Lemon is doing with post-modern dance in ”Geography.” They are reconsidering the premise that an African-American esthetic even exists. ”Personally,” Mr. Solomons, a former Merce Cunningham dancer, once wrote, ”I can’t accept racial separation either as a social or artistic proposition.” They are also analyzing how racism operates. In his work ”The Minstrel Show,” for example, Mr. Byrd invited audience members to contribute racist jokes to the performance.

Some choreographers are articulating the complex ways racial identification is affected by class, religion, sexuality and gender. Mr. Rousseve has probed the connections between being black and being gay, and Ms. Zollar has looked at the interplay between sexism and racism. With the epic ”Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land,” Bill T. Jones sought to acknowledge and move beyond the apparent schisms between his African-American history, his mother’s Christian faith and his 60’s counterculture utopianism. And in ”Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk” on Broadway, as in much contemporary African-American choreography, personal narrative rekindles racial memory.

Adapted from Nytimes.

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Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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24 Comments


  1. MIP: Lemon uses black dancers to explore African-American identity/racial issues

    Reply

  2. MI: African-American choreographers => politics + historical identity

    Reply

  3. RL’s Revelation in black dance
    role of race = in dance

    Reply

  4. RL= use Black dancers to explore the issues behind racial identification

    Reply

  5. Main Idea: Black dancers are exploring what they dance for and what their choreography represents

    Reply

  6. artists important for race discussion

    Reply

  7. Choreographers (ex. Lemon) = explore to address African-American issues through dancing = represent black identity

    Reply

  8. MIP: Black identity of dance = changing.

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  9. MI: It is very complex examining racial identification in class, religion, sex and gender. Dance is a form of art that gives African Americans a form of identity.

    Reply

  10. Using Mr.Lemon as an example, the author is trying to show the shift in dance choreography from the sake of dance to intertwining to identities of people from disenfranchised groups

    Reply

  11. MIP: dance explores intersectionality; black choreographers’ approach=different

    Reply

  12. African Americans choreographers use dance to explore their self identity – particularly their racial identity.

    Reply

  13. choreographers = explore African American; racial identification = complex, some people are offended by the work, author = neutral

    Reply

  14. MI: C’s exploring/learnig about race issues= + effect
    tone: neut

    Reply

  15. RL’s work = different (ex. Geograpy), Black dance = complicated + political messages

    Reply

  16. Lem’s work=now black + revelations
    Artists (choreographers specifically) = important for topic on race

    Reply

  17. Lemon = trying to understand his relationship with African and African-American cultures + revelation.

    Reply

  18. choreographers expression of racial issues and identity through dance; Lemon =/= accepted but instigated change

    Reply

  19. Lemon= incorporating more AA in his work
    dance= relating back to race/politics

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  20. MI: Lemon wanted to accurately reflect black image

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  21. Dance is being used by choreographers to address the racial identity in African Americans. The passage states several examples of works done by certain artists, and the specific issues they try to address. The author proposes that choreographers or artists are no different than law makers in addressing the problems of race in today’s society; however, choreographers have a different expressive way of doing it.

    Reply

  22.  Author narrates that dance is essential to culture. Mr. Lemon an African American has ONLY black people involved in his show, some call this racist but Mr. Lemon embraces this to emphasize the history of African-Americans.

    Reply

  23. PL=best+was limited b/c race+get improved; black identity in arts → politics and race discrimination.

    Reply

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