"CITY DANCE '77" is here, and it's an idea whose time is ripe. Dance is booming everywhere, as an art form for everyone. Greater Washington seems to be on the point of awakening to its potential allure as a cultural metropolia. "City Dance" aims to put the two together, in a manner that will benefit both dance and the community.
The dances you see pictured on these pages, readying themselves for "City Dance '77", are not superstars with international reputations and jet-propelled fees to match. You may not, as yet, have heard of a single one of them.
Nevertheless these young people share with dancers the world over, along with the heartaches, backaches and years of rigorous training that are an axiomatic part of the profession, very similar artistic goals and aspirations. They want to be seen, and to communicate with us in that intricate, beautiful "body language" which constitutes their art. These particular dancers, however, have a special - indeed unique - claim on our attention. They are Washington's own. They, and others like them throughout the metropolitan area, are our "home team" when it comes to dance.
"City Dance '77" has been designed, in part, to put this treasury of talent on display for a much broader public than has seen it in the past. It's a week-long festival of area dance troupes, beginning Tuesday, which will take place in the recently refurbished Warner Theater in the heart of downtown.
The first two festival days, this Tuesday and Wednesday, will be given over to this year's version of the Washington Performing Arts Society's annual Concerts-in-Schools Festival. An expected 7000 children from public, parochial and special schools hereabouts will be transported to the Warner for free morning and afternoon performances by the African Heritage Dancers and Drummers, and the Orville Johnson Dance Company.
The final three days, Thursday through Saturday, also under the aegis of WPAS, will offer evening programs at the Warner, with two or three area troupes each night performing diversified programs at bargain prices, open to the public at large.
The recent "explosion" of dance activity, and the corollary growth of dance audiences (from one million to fifteen million in the U.S. over the past decade), have been worldwide. Washington, far from having been left behind, has been a prime exhibit in this continuing phenomenon.
With the advent of the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap, both of which opened their doors in 1971, Washington rapidly evolved into one of the foremost dance centers of the nation. The major established ballet, modern and folk-ethnic troupes, both from this country and abroad, have accustomed themselves to making a Washington season or stopover a "must" on their yearly itineraries. Outside of New York, there is no other place in the country where so rich a variety of dance can now be seen.
Though the visiting attractions have been the most conspicuous part of it, the boom has by no means been confined to outsiders. It's true that the collapse in 1974 of the area's one fully professional classical ballet troupe - the National Ballet - was a serious setback. But in a sense, numerous phoenixes have risen from the ashes.
The Kennedy Center, far from killing off local dance initiative as many anticipated, seems to have stimulated local appetite for dance of all kinds, in all sorts of places. During a recent four-day span this year, for example, twenty-nine separate dance performances were occurring throughout the area, only a handful of them at the Kennedy Center. When the organizers of "City Dance '77" got around to choosing participants for the festival, they found themselves - to their considerable amazement - confronted with upwards of thirty functioning dance groups within the greater Washington borders. Some of these are of long standing, but the large majority were founded after the Kennedy Center was already in business.
In all this burgeoning activity, however, the hometowners have been somewhat lost in the shuffle insofar as public awareness is concerned.
A few local groups have shown their wares, from time to time, in such downtown locations as Lisner Auditorium or the WPA loft stage. Most, however, serving regional or neighborhood constituencies all over the city, customarily perform in far-flung schools, churches, community centers and outdoor sites, in addition to whatever touring they may undertake.
It follows that visibility, in the wider sense, has been a generic problem for Washington dancers and choreographers. That is where "City Dance" comes in. Bringing Washington dance to Washingtonians was one of the primary motivations for Nancy Pittman, the young dance graduate from George Washington University who first thought up the "City Dance" concept more than two years ago. The idea really began to take flight when she took it to WPAS, where it fitted in both with the long-established Concerts-in-Schools program and with the Society's own provisional plans for a community dance festival.
It has taken well over a year of planning, negotiations, fund-raising and paperwork to get things in shape for this ambitious event.
As with any such project, much determination and effort has been demanded from a whole crew of involved people. Eventually, the entire WPAS pitched in to make "City Dance '77" possible. Nancy Pittman was engaged as festival coordinator. Betryce Prosterman, a veteran of long experience with the Concerts-in-Schools program, was named festival producer. Patrick Hayes and Douglas Wheeler, respectively, the managing director and manager of WPAS, assumed overall responsibility for the project. Monies have been raised from a number of sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the WPAS Women's Committee, the Queene Ferry Coonley Foundation, Clyde's, Inc., 1789, Inc., and the Truland Corporation.
To make the selection of participating dance companies as fair as possible, a panel of ten dance world representatives and arts supporters, none of them directly invovled with a performing unit under consideration, was appointed.
Four main criteria were set up for purposes of the selection: artistic quality was first; the desire to fully reflect the stylistic and ethnic diversity of Washington dance was another; a third was a wish to make the festival programs as accessible as possible to a general public; last was the need for an active repertory of works that could be rehearsed and mounted within a relatively short lead time. The hope that the festival would become an annual event left room for the future inclusion of groups that fell through the mesh the first time around.
The eight companies chosen do effectively mirror the gamut of contemporary Washington dance, and there is surprisingly little overlap in the genres they represent:
The African Heritage Dancers and Drummers draws upon director Melvin Deal's first-hand knowledge of the subject to present the music, folk tales and dance ceremonies of the peoples of West Africa.
The Capitol Ballet, founded in 1961 by Doris Jones and Claire Haywood, fuses classical ballet, jazz and tap dance idioms into a distinctive repertoire that has been a particular haven for young black dancers on the Washington scene. Chita Rivera and Hinton Battle are among the alumni of the Jones-Haywood school who have gone on to notable professional careers.
The four-year-old D.C. Repertory Dance Company, under the directorship of Mike Malone, has performed in New York City, the Bahamas, Jamaica, North Carolina, and recently, the FESTAC arts festival in Nigeria. The company's repertoire emphasizes the broadest arcs of the black dance heritage.
The Dance Construction Company, led by Maida Withers, explores the frontiers of avant-garde dance, and has performed in such offbeat sites as cemeteries, sidewalks, elevators and cafeterias.
The Orville Johnson Dance Company specializes in educational service, and has participated in the Concerts-in-Schools programs for a number of years.
The Maryland Dance Theater, co-directed by Larry Warren and Dorothy Madden, serves simultaneously as a modern dance repertory troupe and a showcase for area dancers and choreographers. Regular tours take the troupe throughout the state.
The Washington Ballet, directed by Mary Day, has long promulgated the rigorous traditions of the classical ballet, as exemplified in its well known annual production of "The Nutcracker." Recently, with the help of its new resident choreographer, Choo San Goh, it has become an important platform for creative work as well.
The Washington Dance Theater, led by Erika Thimey, focuses its repertory around its numerous area appearances in churches and schools.
A series ticket for the three public events, Thursday through Sunday evenings, is available for $8.50. Separate tickets cost $3.50 for general admission; $2 for senior citizens and students; and $1 for children under 12.