“Dancing on the Edge,” an online version of the BlakTinx Dance Festival was already in full production mode when the killing of George Floyd shook its community of dance makers to the core.
Earlier in the spring, the dance festival which is dedicated to showcasing the creative voices of Black and Latinx choreographers, sent out a call to alumni of the festival, asking them to submit video dance pieces responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. These pieces were to be included in a digital dance showcase backed by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs.
But then a little less than two weeks before the scheduled online premiere on June 6, Floyd’s death compelled BlakTinx Dance Festival founder Licia Perea and her team to reschedule the release date to June 20 and regroup. Now, all four 30-minute parts of “Dancing on the Edge” are now available to view on YouTube anytime.
“It’s like trying to bring a freight train to a stop,” recalls Perea. She had to put public relations and other aspects of video production on hold. She also gave choreographers the time to process Floyd’s brutal death and the wave of civic action that followed. “We all went into kind of a state of shock. All of our energy just got dispersed and kind of sucked into a black hole. Everybody started to [say], ‘I can’t even wrap my head around getting ready for a show when I’m going to go to protest.’
“We began to have another conversation about changing the focus of the concert of ‘Dancing on the Edge’ to also include Black Lives Matter,” she continues. “So a few of the choreographers actually pulled their original work out and put something else in instead.”
Between the two prompts to the “double crisis,” Perea received a range of responses — from intimate DIY videos of dancers performing flamenco or jazz in their backyards to poignant black and white statements on the imprisonment of immigrant children in cages to passionate performances on “the trials and triumphs” of being Black in America. Perea also selected relevant videotaped works from the BlakTinx festival archives that spoke to timely themes of police brutality, racial injustice and social unrest.
Some choreographers, like Shantel Ureña, created and filmed new work in a matter of days. Ureña’s work explored the urgent need for Latinx allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement. Others, like Sadie Yarrington, a dance educator on the faculties of Inner-City Arts and New Roads School in Santa Monica, finally decided to submit to the festival after Floyd’s death, with some urging by Perea.
“I wasn't feeling physically in a place where I wanted to put myself on camera yet in such a vulnerable way,” recalls Yarrington, who identifies as Black and multiracial. Yet she had a change of heart after Perea encouraged her to record herself reading sentiments of fear and creative frustration that she had expressed to Perea in an email. The short film sets simple tasks of Yarrington washing her hands or taking her dog out for a walk against her words expressing fear of the coronavirus and the police.
“I actually found the process of making it, which I did in just an afternoon … very therapeutic,” says Yarrington, who also says she felt comfortable sharing her work because of the safe environment that BlakTinx has fostered for choreographers of color over the years.
“Safety is really important to me,” she says, “to create work and have it presented by people I feel supported by and not be tokenized.”
L.A. dance veteran Bernard Brown felt similarly supported by the festival to present work he felt vulnerable sharing — namely a solo he had choreographed for BlakTinx previously called “Leanin’ In.” Perea wanted to present an archival video of the work for “Dancing on the Edge.” The solo meditates on the struggle against white supremacy with movement motifs inspired by boxing and running, but was captured on film with two different dancers — one video featured Filipino American dancer Christopher Salanga, the other Brown himself, having just come off an injury — giving two very different readings to the dance.
“A 40-year-old Black dancing body telling the story of perseverance means something different than a 20-something fairly unhindered Filipino body telling the story,” says Brown, who struggled with whether to showcase his version of the solo in “Dancing on the Edge,” but ultimately decided that the new timing of the showcase and BlakTinx’s show of allyship and solidarity made it the right forum. “I felt that it was really important to have a visibly Black male body doing this work.”
Since 2013, the BlakTinx Dance Festival — based out of the Rampart district’s Bootleg Theater and formerly known as the BlakTina Dance Festival — has been a safe and dedicated space for Black and Latinx choreographers to share work. It has become a platform for choreographers of color to showcase dances, develop and proclaim their voices and create an intercultural community network of dance artists.
“What’s really great about BlakTinx is that they offer explicitly the opportunity to choreographers of color, like in the name, right?” says Brown, also an assistant professor of dance at Sacramento State. He notes that “unseen forces” at mainstream cultural institutions and residencies can make it difficult for the work of choreographers of color to be noticed, supported and represented. “So you’re going to have a Black choreographer, you’re going to have a Latinx choreographer or maybe one that identifies as Afro-Latino. So to have that space for that to exist is great,” he said.
“It has helped me to decolonize dance,” adds non-binary Latinx choreographer Alán L. Pérez, another alum of the BlakTinx Festival. For “Dancing on the Edge,” they created an elegant duet with a dance partner of extensions and lifts that meditates on the difficulties of LGBTQ+ folx returning home to unaccepting “machismo” households during the pandemic.
Click through below to see some of the work from choeographers who have been featured on the BlakTinx Festival.
“It has taught me that ballet and contemporary are not some elite form of dance,” Pérez continues, speaking of the BlakTinx festival. “I’m not tall. I have short legs. I’m Brown. My legs don’t straighten all the way. It doesn’t make me less valuable than a white, tall, skinny body with a small head and long legs and pointed toes. It has taught me that just because white … European immigrants don’t understand my story or Black stories … it doesn’t make it less valuable. It has taught me we should bring more Black and Brown bodies into the stage.”
The festival also extends additional performance opportunities to its alumni, including producing an alumni showcase, and in previous years has held a workshop component where veteran choreographers and the festival’s panelists give feedback to participating artists on their works in the months leading up to the festival.
Unlike some dance festivals, Perea insists on paying choreographers whatever she can based on funding resources, usually a couple hundred dollars, which choreographers can use to pay themselves or their dancers for performing. The BlakTinx Festival also handles other elements of production, which might be overwhelming and expensive for a solo choreographer attempting to mount an entire evening-length show, such as renting out a theater, running tech rehearsals and helping with marketing and public relations. Next season, the festival and its alumni showcase will be funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Perea initially founded the festival to bring the Black and Latinx communities together through dance and to give more opportunities to emerging and mid-career choreographers outside of academia. In the future, she hopes to foster further “cross-pollination” between Black and Latinx voices in regions across the country, such as Phoenix, Arizona, where BlakTinx has a sister festival. The California and Arizona festivals also host a choreographers exchange between Los Angeles and Phoenix-based choreographers.
“As we grow, I would love for this to be in five or six cities around the country,” says Perea. “Both cultures, Black and Latinx, from the South, the deep South — Miami or Atlanta — or New Orleans, those voices are going to be a little different than the voices here on the West Coast .… I love the idea of giving these choreographers an opportunity to tour their work … and just [have] that cross-pollination within our cultures.”
Touring may be a long way off, Perea acknowledges, and she mourns the loss of BlakTinx’s “physical community.” Yet creating a virtual version of the festival has drawn the community together in new ways, she says — not only digitally through comments and chats during the online premiere, but also through a new intimate video window into the dancers’ worlds.
“It was such an emotional time,” she says of watching the videos for the first time. “I know these choreographers … and then you get to know them even more because you’re brought into their personal spaces. It was for me, a very beautiful thing to see them sharing like they did .… I had a lot of tears.”
Top Image: Maura Townsend's "Pendulum (A Call for Change)," 2014. | Courtesy of BlakTinx Dance Festival