You are here

The Race of Contemporary Ballet: Interpellations of Africanist Aesthetics 

Thomas F. DeFrantz
October 14, 2019 - 2:30pm
Meany Hall- Studio 266
Thomas F.DeFrantz
Thomas F. DeFrantz

Lecture/Discussion with Thomas F. DeFrantz

Thomas F. DeFrantz is Chair of African and African American Studies and Professor of Dance, and Theater Studies at Duke University. He is past-president of the Society of Dance History Scholars, and is currently the director of SLIPPAGE: Performance, Culture, Technology, a research group that explores emerging technology in live performance applications. He convenes the working group Black Performance Theory and the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance. His books include the edited volume Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance (2002) and Dancing Revelations: Alvin Ailey’s Embodiment of African American Culture (2004) and Black Performance Theory co-edited with Anita Gonzalez. A director and writer, his creative works include CANE: A Responsive Environment Dancework.

The proposition: Contemporary Ballet emerges in direct relationship to Africanist aesthetics. Evidences:  the curated use of rhythmic forcefulness as a compositional device; the choreographed individuality of dancer movement laid bare within a group dynamic; unexpected physical attack and extension of form toward surprising performative ends drawing on improvisation in rehearsal and performance; the implicit inclusion of the audience’s ability to decode gestural and musical contents that reach well beyond the theatrical moment; an abiding performance register of “cool.”  Choreographers of Contemporary Ballet refer consistently to these sorts of aesthetic devices, whether their collaborating artists are of African descent or not. 
But what’s at stake when Africanist aesthetics are driving creative assembly of contemporary ballet, but few Black dancers are allowed to take roles in these works, or are afforded the opportunity to choreograph in the most well-resourced institutions of dance?  Cultural appropriation rears its impact in this displacement, where Black gesture is referred to and animated by whites and others without any obvious material relationship to Black people. In this unfortunate formation, Black creativity becomes the spectral underpinning of a white-appearing contemporary ballet performing-machine, adding insult to the injury of an ongoing disavowal of Black people within professional dance.