Combining Artistry and Social Activism
by Pat Graney
at the Emerson Majestic Theatre
October 29, 30 and 31
If you flip through the brochure of Dance Umbrella, multiculturalism and political correctness will slap you in the face. In an age where "diversity" seems to be the key word, Dance Umbrella's boundary-breaking agenda has allowed it to become the largest showcase of contemporary dance in New England.
This year's season includes an ensemble of Native American dancers, a group that traces images of women throughout history, two women who explore the Japanese American internment during World War II and a Jazz Tap/Hip Hop Festival that features both up-and-coming rap dancers and Broadway tap artists.
In the last 11 years, Dance Umbrella has presented dance from every continent except Australia. Every season, Director Jeremy Alliger sets the organization's political agenda. He then chooses from a pool of stellar companies and combines them to deliver his message to the public.
"We use dance to address issues of importance," says Alliger. "We work with artists who have vision, and artists who are pushing the boundaries between art forms and challenging people's definitions of what dance is...and what dance can be."
Last year's production of Bill T. Jones' Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land illustrates Dance Umbrella's political aims and ground-breaking forms of art. Jones's piece addressed issues such as AIDS, racism and faith by synthesizing dance, music, visual art, costume and dialogue. The cast included Boston residents of different cultural backgrounds. To complement the performance, Dance Umbrella conducted outreach programs to communities of diverse religion and ethnicity.
In fact, Dance Umbrella's ambitious mission includes far more than performance. Alliger wants the public to understand dance and to be able to use it as a means of communication.
To bring dance to more people, the Umbrella runs outreach activities such as movement classes in public schools, post-performance meet-the-artist sessions, artist-in-residence programs with local dancers and participation in the "Human Services Personnel Collaborative," which funds a variety of multicultural non-profit organizations throughout Boston.
Now in its 12th season and with an endowment exceeding $1 million, Dance Umbrella has grown significantly since its humble beginnings in Cambridge. It owes its success to the zealous enterprise of Alliger.
Alliger's genius stems neither from an illustrious dance background nor a business degree. At Emerson College, he studied television, theater and photography, and graduated with a self-designed degree in Visual Design and Communication. He worked a number of odd jobs--as a cab driver, a cook for a Jewish nursing home, a graphic arts manager--all in an attempt to support his fledgling photography business.
But an experience one night in 1976 introduced Alliger to dance and changed his direction in life.
A friend asked him to fill in as lighting designer for a small modern dance group that was performing in the basement of a church on Garden Street. Although Alliger had no lighting experience beyond that of the photography studio, he accepted the job. "I was very nervous and I sweated a lot, and it was definitely a wing-it production," he says, "but I probably fell in love with dance as an art form that evening."
Soon Alliger was working steadily as a lighting designer for modern dance companies in church basements throughout Boston. Then one weekend he noticed that two local troupes had scheduled their concerts on the same weekend. Concerned that small companies were only hurting their business by splitting their audiences, he decided to assist with scheduling as well as lighting.
In 1981, Alliger established a contract with the Joy of Movement Center in Central Square, and Dance Umbrella was born. He guaranteed that he would rent their studio theater for 40 weeks if the Joy of Movement would give him a substantial discount, and he commissioned local companies to fill the space.
Audiences filled the theater, coming week after week to see little-known groups, like Synapse Dance Theatre and Perla Joy Furr and Company, whom Alliger had invited to perform on a first-come, first-served basis.
Now, Dance Umbrella attracts top-name companies from around the world. Alliger is indebted to luminaries such as the celebrated, cutting-edge artist Mark Morris. Morris's dancers have performed annually with Dance Umbrella since 1984, when they presented Mythologies, a trilogy based on the essays of philosopher Roland Barthes.
When Morris joined Mikhail Barishnikov along with a small group of renowned modern and ballet dancers in the White Oak Dance Project, Dance Umbrella hosted the premiere performance. Now Morris works with Dance Umbrella six weeks out of every year as an artist-in-residence.
Although Dance Umbrella has grown to a prestigious, nationally funded organization, it still has to struggle for funding along with all other arts organizations. Alliger notes that the recession has added to the problem, but that its source lies in "ongoing attacks on communities of the arts."
"Artists in this country have become the enemy to the conservative and religious right," says Alliger. "[The right] no longer has communism to attack....The artist has replaced that." Lamenting the fate of creativity here, he added, "America is one of the only countries that really undervalues the artist. European communities at least recognize the role of culture in society. Most Third-World cultures don't even have a word for `art' because it's part of everyday life, it's completely integrated....We've lost that."
While holding firm in his political stance, Alliger emphasizes that dance can be a completely unobtrusive form of activism. This past Columbus Day, for example, Dance Umbrella staged a two-day "Pow-wow" at the Hatch Shell in Boston. This festival brought together a variety of Native American and Latin music, dance, crafts, storytelling and theater to provide a different perspective of the 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of America. "This event was meant to be educational, not confrontational," claims Alliger. "We were celebrating 500 years of survival of the Native American people."
Dance Umbrella holds performances everywhere in Boston, from the Hatch Shell to the Cyclorama (where the aerial dancers performed) to Emerson College's Majestic Theatre. "We're an unusual group in that we're homeless by choice," says Alliger. "This prevents us from limiting our programming decisions. In one season we can work in everything from a 400-seat black-box theater to the Wang Center, and everything in between. We can accommodate the artists' provisions and we can grow with the artists."
Alliger encourages college students, whom he sees as less politically inclined than those of his day, to watch dance. "Student populations should be interested in issues and in pushing boundaries, and that's what Dance Umbrella's all about," he says. "We're saying, `Here's the story, here's the picture--now judge for yourself.'"