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Mixed Relations

Local Dance Company Full Circle Tries To Tackle Race In America

Michael Northrup

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 2/21/2007

Full Circle performs Borders Uncrossed

Baltimore Museum of Art, Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m., (410) 235-9003

Two lithe women--one black, one white--saunter toward each other from opposite ends of a well-lit room. As they meet in the center, their arms extend forward and they clutch each other by the throat. They hold this pose for a moment before reluctantly letting go and turning away, heading to opposite ends of the room. A few beats later, two different women--one black, one white--sail past each other, this time saying the words suggested by the dancers' movements: "I hate white people" and "I hate black people," each uttered with whispered, half-spit venom.

These exchanges are part of Full Circle Dance Company's latest program, Borders Uncrossed, debuting this week at the Baltimore Museum of Art for Black History Month. The dance cited above isn't a mere lesson in active antagonism. It's a metaphor for what this dance company is trying to convey. Racial differences are more about the ugly, deep-rooted ideas that are left unsaid, society writ large symbolized by the black and white dancers here. And even though Full Circle has choreographed several dances for Borders Uncrossed to explore racial differences and suggest a path to racial dialogue, the dancers feel that at the end of the day the usual hatred will win out.

"This is a project we had fear about," says Donna Jacobs, the founder of Full Circle and director of Morton Street Dance Center, and a senior vice president for the University of Maryland Medical System by day (Arts & Entertainment, Oct. 19, 2005). On this Saturday night the fortysomething sweats-clad Jacobs and dancers are rehearsing Borders' choreographies at her Morton Street studios at Clipper Mill. "We're an interracial dance company," she says. "Do we have to bring in a facilitator to handle this [subject]? Would thoughts and latent opinions and experiences come out in our dance that would injure people?"

The project began last winter when dancers were discussing topics for their next show. Madi Jackson, a thirtysomething Full Circle dancer and choreographer, suggested doing something on race. So the company, as it usually does, sponsored a community forum on race to inform their eventual dances.

Only about 20 people showed up, many of whom were Full Circle members. "Not everybody wants to talk about race," Jacobs says. "Many times people don't know how their opinions will be perceived by someone else. They don't know what is safe to say and how others will judge you based on what you said."

The members of Full Circle decided that, for this particular subject, conferring among the company was a more effective strategy. They talked about race in an intimate, familiar setting with each other. And they talked about everything they could think of--racial slurs, misconceptions and stereotypes, interracial relationships, special treatment or the lack thereof. And what they found is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The ages of Full Circle's 16 members range from 17 to 49. One of the younger members shared with Jacobs how when she walks down her street one family stands outside and yells "nigger" as she walks by. An older member shared a story of his house being shot at by the Ku Klux Klan when he was a growing up 30 years ago. Some white members talked about growing up in all-white communities where they really didn't have to deal with race.

These memories and stories show up in their dances. "Across the Lines," choreographed by Jacobs and Travis Gatling of Ohio, begins with two dancers, a black man and a white woman, trading verbal barbs with each other: "Colored people only," "Get out of my neighborhood," "The word is `asked,' not `axed.'" They then move into a loving embrace, stealing glances at their skin as if seeing it for the first time through their lover's eyes. The dance ends on a much less tender note, as the company itself divides into black and white members on opposite sides of the stage, pointing at each other in silence.

"There have been moments when I have [asked myself], `Have I gone too far?'" Jacobs says. "`Did I say too much? Was that last button the one I shouldn't have pushed?'" Jacobs adds that when the dancers have to say hurtful things to one another she watches their body motions to see if such sentiments are also coming through in their other movements. It doesn't, and the juxtaposition of verbal spleen and choreographed idealism lends the performances ephemeral grace and power.

That frisson between what is seen and what is felt runs right through some of the dancers themselves. Jackson is biracial, though she admits she feels more comfortable with whites than blacks. That's why she stands with the white dancers in "Across the Lines." Her informative childhood memories include predominately white schools and her black peers teasing her. Confrontational ripples run through Borders Uncrossed's choreography as black and white dancers press their bodies up against each other, forcing each other to deal with their differences and their issues.

Like Jacobs, though, Jackson isn't confident that the cultural baggage of race in America will ever be resolved. "There's always going to be a new generation coming up from an old generation [with old ideals]," she says.

Other dances deal with the triumph of the spirit beyond overwhelming odds. The first portion of "Deep Bayou," choreographed by Jacobs, is set to Nina Simone's "Four Women," and in it the dancers--some biracial, some black--dance in motions that try to express their racial backgrounds. Their struggles are all different, but their dances are equally intense. In the dance's second section, a black dancer portrays a character who is tired, weary, and near death from a long life of servitude. The attending company of dancers, both black and white, pick her up when she is ready to lie down and die.

After rehearsal, the Full Circle dancers continue their racial discussion in casual conversations. They talk about how this program affects them as a company and individually when they leave the dance studio.

"This project has made us a more cohesive unit," says the petite Liz Pelton, a five-year Full Circle veteran. "We all feel that we are a lot closer, even though we have delved into these hard issues. I see my interactions [with others] in Baltimore City with a different lens. I think individuals can learn a lot from each other and make progress."

"For the emotion to be real [onstage], you have to be honest with yourself," says Algernon Campbell, the black male dancer in "Across the Lines." "This duet is about the newness of someone who is not your complexion. I think the foundation of it is, love is love, and definitely believe that. Regardless of how it comes, love is love. In dancing it, I have to be able to connect with my definition of love and how I exude that. Regardless of the color of the person in front of me, the emotion of the love has to be pure and true."

Campbell does admit, though, that he personally has decided not to date outside of his race. I don't think [the dance has] changed my view," he says. "Even in an understanding that love is love can be an awareness that equally important is being free to love whom you wish."

He also admits that he was never offended by the Confederate flags he saw all the time while growing up in Savannah, Ga., until he went to Atlanta and witnessed other African-Americans' reactions to the Southern symbol. "Seeing it was a part of my everyday experience," Campbell says. "So my visceral reaction to the experience wasn't as strong as others who didn't see that every day. On a certain level, I became desensitized. But that still doesn't negate the effect that the symbol had on me once I became aware of how it could affect other people who look like me from a different geographic area."

Another dancer shares how skin color is an arduous road even within a family unit. April Turner is one of eight children, and her younger brother is the darkest-skinned of them all. And though she constantly tells him how good-looking he is, he uses foundation to lighten his skin.

"He feels like the rest of us have teased him for being darker than we are, and he always says, `Why are you looking at me?'" Turner says, adding that she hopes he comes to see her perform in this show. "I want him to be aware that he's not alone. All of us are going through it."

And that's what Jackson and Jacobs mean when they say they fear that race is never going to go away, that we all have to contend with its collateral damage in some way. "They may shift and manifest in various ways, but I don't know if [racial issues] will ever go away," Jackson says, "which is the whole reason for the piece."

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