At Harlem Stage, Bringing Downtown Dance Uptown

He spoke repeatedly about the discomfort of being a “guilty unicorn” as a Black artist in the mostly white avant-garde. (Zane, who died in 1988, was white.) Jones told a story of being on a 1980s panel about the future of Black dance, surrounded by a pantheon of older Black dance artists, and declaring that he was an artist first and a Black man second. The pioneering Black choreographer Pearl Primus ran down the aisle and cursed him, Jones said.

But Zollar, 74, recalled being a “border crosser,” moving between the white avant-garde and a Black one, located in Harlem institutions like the dance studio of Dianne McIntyre. “I saw connectivity, but I also saw a lack of equity,” she said.

Brown, 57, quiet among the outspoken others, talked the least, but he summed up the feeling of everyone about Harlem Stage. “Harlem Stage provided that safe place where you could just come in and create, without judgment or questions about who you are,” he said.

Here are some edited excerpts from the conversation:

BILL T. JONES Why was the avant-garde “downtown,” so that Harlem Stage had to get us “uptown”?

PATRICIA CRUZ There was a climate in which the avant-garde developed downtown, just as Harlem had been the place for the Harlem Renaissance. I also think there was an unstated conservative element in the Black community.

JAWOLE WILLA JO ZOLLAR There was a very strong Black avant-garde — in the music, in the visual arts, in poets like Ntozake [Shange] and in dance at Dianne McIntyre’s space. But there was segregation, and some rigid ideologies that kept the segregation in place.

JONES I didn’t know about the Black avant-garde. When Arnie and I came to New York, we were looking for the cool kids. There was a loneliness being a Black face in the white avant-garde. But I thought that the Black Arts Movement people made the choice of wanting to make art with people who looked like them.

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