Correction: ●An earlier version of this article misspelled Joseph Melillo’s last name and misstated his title. He is the executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, not the executive director. This version has been corrected.
If you go to a modern-dance performance in Washington, you won’t see many people dressed in dark business suits. That attire is more appropriate for a State Department confab, even one held at a black-box theater. But wardrobe choices were where any sense of normalcy ended Wednesday afternoon at Dance Place, given that diplomacy typically involves tea and crumpets, not krumping.
The Brookland venue hosted 160 performers and diplomatic guests at an event celebrating DanceMotion USA, the State Department initiative that will send four American dance companies to countries that are mostly off the beaten tourist path. The Boise, Idaho-based modern Trey McIntyre Project is headed for Asia. Philadelphia hip-hoppers from Rennie Harris Puremovement are off to the Middle East. New York’s Sean Curran Company will perform modern dance in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic. And California’s Jazz Tap Ensemble will tour Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Admittedly, it does sound a little like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ episode, sending tap dancers to the Congo,” said Cynthia Schneider, a Georgetown University professor who teaches cultural diplomacy. “But this is actually a really good program. It’s about making an impact through people-to-people relations, not government-to-government foreign affairs. And they’ve got some great partners on board.”
Now in its second year, DanceMotion USA is a $1.7 million effort jointly funded by the State Department, J.P. Morgan, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and Pfizer. The program is managed by the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
Speaking before the demo performance got underway, BAM Executive Producer Joseph Melillo said, “The logistics are absolutely extraordinary, what it takes to send four companies to four corners of the world.” Among his responsibilities: the advance shipping of 100 tap shoes to Africa so the dancers can lead children’s workshops. He’s also providing guidance to the four companies about which works to perform, how music will be perceived and whether any of their press photos are, in McIntyre’s words, “too naked.”
Because of concerns about cultural sensitivity, Trey McIntyre Project will not perform an excerpt from “The Sweeter End” that the company demonstrated at Dance Place. The New Orleans-inspired work ended with dancer Chanel DiSilva shaking her breasts in the face of South Korean Ambassador Han Duk-soo, who was seated in the second row. (For the record, the ambassador applauded enthusiastically, but he seemed more impressed with the Puremovement break-dancers.)
On tour, McIntyre has picked a tamer repertoire, including a ballet suite featuring the songs of Roy Orbison and another work set to music by Peter, Paul and Mary.
“It’s Americana-heavy, but then, that’s what our company is known for,” the choreographer said.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.