“Decolonizing” performance art | New


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Photo by Blake Wood, ISU

Hip-Hop Xpress is a mobile recording and production studio.

The performing arts are largely based on an “Anglo-Saxon and English perspective,” according to Reggie Guyton, a Springfield-based artist, director and activist. The theater is particularly Eurocentric, Guyton said – its origins are attributed to the Greeks. Newer works, such as the 2015 musical Hamilton, helps decenter that perspective and broaden the audience, he said. The musical features performers of color, hip-hop and other modern genres to tell the story of America’s first treasurer.

Guyton spoke as part of an April 5 panel hosted by the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS) on the intersection of racial equality and the arts. He said leaders in the field should nurture ongoing relationships with diverse audiences to create inclusive performance art.

“Ballet is considered by many to be the epitome of dance in American culture,” Tiffani Saunders said during the panel. She is a professor of African American studies at ISU and was recently elected to the Chatham Public School Board. She said she would like people to consider jazz, native people and tap dancing as American dance styles with as much value as ballet.

When “classic” is elitist

Although she was introduced to the “classical” violin and dance as a child, Saunders did not question what the term “classical” meant in performing art until later in her life. ‘adult. As a teacher, she decided to create a class based on this question. Dance is a cultural product. It is shaped by class, gender, ethnicity and tradition. And for this reason, Saunders said, ballet “must be understood as an ethnic or folk dance of Europe”. It also teaches how dances and music have been used in history. Tap dancing, for example, was an encrypted way for slaves to communicate. Dance and jazz music are rooted in African American spiritual and festive traditions.

Recognizing and valuing this history helps build a more inclusive image of the American performing arts than it always has been, Saunders said. While ballet is a European dance that originated in the courts of kings and queens, there are other dance forms that can be considered classical American forms. Saunders said that in most schools, the roots and usefulness of different types of performing arts like jazz or native dance are sadly “undisputed and unexamined.” The roots of music and dance genres have been largely ignored, especially in the way we think about and teach dance in America. That says a lot about how the breed works, according to Saunders.


During the panel, Guyton spoke about his experiences as an actor in the black community and focused on questions that directors and arts organizations can think about, for example, how to build authentic relationships with the communities they want to serve. Guyton said leaders should also think about the level of interaction between their organizations and marginalized communities, as well as the rate of attendance at hearings and events.

He also suggested that these cutting edge projects should consider the age, race and gender of the audience and participants, and whether an audience reflects the makeup of a community. Guyton said the cost of attending and participating in productions can exclude people from certain identities. Providing discounts, premium seats and transportation assistance can ensure that a program is presented and presented fairly.

He also urged artistic directors and boards of directors to consider barriers to participation or attendance, such as access to child care. “When you give artists of color the ability to dream, they are able to visualize and produce content,” Guyton said. When you give them the tools, access and space to also invite family, friends and communities, the result can be truly inclusive, Guyton said. Making these considerations, especially before casting, promotes inclusion and can broaden audiences.

Teaching students the standardized standards of American dance and history is one way Saunders strives to “decolonize” the performing arts. Saunders teaches theories that explore the underlying white and elitist hierarchies. In addition to her work at UIS, she is the co-founder of Hip-Hop Xpress, a school bus turned mobile recording studio. The project is funded by U of I. The bus is transported to underserved communities and its recording and production services are provided free of charge. “We determine where there is a need and park it in that community,” Saunders said. “We have to bring things that are familiar to young people.” Providing relevant services arouses enthusiasm and involvement of young people, she said.

It is only when organizations take both an academic and community approach to decolonizing the arts that people will realize that there is more to appreciate “than the status quo,” Guyton said. “There is more than the traditional way of knowing things.”

Contact Madison Angell at [email protected]

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