Now in its third season, the Black Choreographers Festival runs October 13-15 at the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. It will feature works by 15 choreographers over two performances along with a panel discussion and a range of workshops. Streaming options are also available for the performances and the panel discussion.
Organized by Shianne Antoine and Camille Weanquoi, the festival has grown steadily since its inception in 2021. In addition to being the owner of Symmetry Arts dance studio, Antoine has been performing in Baltimore since 2014 and currently dances with BlueShift Dance and GRIDLOCK Dance. She is also an Early Learning Teaching Artist with Arts for Learning, and dance writer covering Baltimore dance on her blog Charm City Dance. Weanquoi is a freelance dance artist, choreographer, teacher, and mentor who has been working in the Baltimore area for over 14 years. She is an assistant professor of dance at Coppin State University and the founder of Camille W Dance & Co., a performing and dance consulting company that advises dance organizations on African diasporic dance programming. Weanquoi is also a co-founder and the executive director of Baltimore Black Dance Collective.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you meet and how did the Black Choreographers Festival get started?
Camille Weanquoi (CW): I’m the co-founder and executive director of Baltimore Black Dance Collective. We are an organization that works to provide visibility and support for Black and Brown identifying dance artists and amplifying their voices within the cultural artistic footprint of the Baltimore region. That’s how I connected to Shianne. A mutual friend of ours knew that we had similar missions as Black dance artists who were presenting work in the area and looking to amplify those voices. We both knew Black dance artists from Baltimore that weren’t getting enough visibility. Full Circle is a Black, woman-owned dance company that has been performing for over 20 years in the Baltimore region, but a lot of people are still just getting to know who they are. Shianne and I both had this vision for seeing the voices of Black dance artists being shared. There is often a lack of awareness that contemporary Black dance artists are here, but the range of styles and genres in which we exist is very wide and very full. We wanted to make sure that we brought that to the attention of our community so we can offer more of an equitable landscape within the arts in Baltimore.
Shianne Antoine (SA): I’ve always had the feeling of ‘why am I the only Black dancer in this contemporary dance company? I know there are more of us.’ I remember having conversations about it with my friend and she said ‘why don’t you do something about it?’ Then our mutual friend introduces me to Camille. That was in 2020 and the first festival happened in 2021.
You mentioned how big a stylistic range Black dancer/performers in Baltimore have. For people who are coming to the festival, what kinds of different work can they expect to see?
CW: There is contemporary, ballet, Afro-fusion, and hip-hop. One of our pieces has a jazzy feel to it. There is a range of styles and genres, not one particular box in which these choreographers all fit. They are touching on various styles within their pieces. You might see a piece that is more contemporary or one where there is a fusion of African and contemporary with ballet. It’s never just one set style. There is morphing between various styles within all of the pieces.
SA: That is one of the great parts about the artists presenting work at the Festival. They are really diverse in their artistry.
With such a wide ranging group of performers, how do you think about programming a festival like this so that it is cohesive, even though there’s so much diversity within the ideas being presented?
SA: When I am looking at the submissions, I’m considering if a piece is worthy to be on a stage. I have to look past it if I feel like the theme is great or if I know the choreographer. The question is: is this technically and compositionally stage-worthy? That’s the first thing. Then of course there are always so many submissions. There is a lot of thought that goes into it. The range of submissions has also really expanded. We are getting them from as far away as California.
CW: It gets tougher each year. The first year we were ‘oh great, people are submitting. This is amazing.’ Then the second year, it was ‘whoa, people are submitting.’ Now we are in our third year and the number of submissions just keeps increasing. The other difficult thing is when we get a video submission of a work that is still in the rehearsal process and we have to imagine what it will look like finished with lights and costumes. Some of what will be performed at the Black Choreographers Festival has already premiered, but some will be custom made.
Organizing dance events is difficult under the best of circumstances. Do you feel that because this is a Black arts festival there were roadblocks that you had to deal with that White dance organizers wouldn’t. Conversely, do you feel that because of the way the festival is representative of the Baltimore dance community, you have had more support for an undertaking like this than you otherwise might have?
CW: Getting funding for any type of event is a huge undertaking. Our first year, we got a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council and we had a lot of support from various organizations and anonymous donors. That was wonderful but a lot of it came out of our pockets. It was difficult to get our name and what we were doing out there. I wouldn’t say it’s 100% because of us being an organization that is presenting Black dance artists. I think it is the overall lack of support for dance in the state of Maryland and, more specifically, the Baltimore region. We have hundreds of people presenting dance in our state, but the lack of support and visibility of dance artists as a whole has been the challenge for people to receive the funding that they need. Pair that with being Black-identifying artists and we are often left out of the conversation. Oftentimes we are looked at as, and no shade or disrespect, only presenting Baltimore club dance—and that cannot be further from the truth. This is why we created the Black Choreographers Festival because it has to be shown that dance exists beyond the scope of what people know. Really putting it in the forefront is going to allow for that change to happen.
SA: I will say that I think that first year our funding was more successful because the impact of Black Lives Matter was so heavy at that time. That made it easier for us to be seen and easier for people to say ‘we want to support the Black organization.’ It was a little bit easier to get funding than it is now. Creative Alliance was also incredibly supportive of what we were doing right from the start and they’ve continued to be supportive.
What is something that happened at a previous festival or during the preparation for this one that made you think ‘this is why we’re doing this’?
CW: Last year we had two youth groups in our show who performed alongside the professional companies. They were watching the professional dancers. It is representation for someone who is 14 or 15, at the beginning of the prime of their training, and opportunity to see the trajectory of where they could go—to think ‘I could be a professional choreographer.’ Look at these choreographers who were sitting and talking about their works and look at these dancers who are onstage as professionals. Then it was saying ‘let’s make sure we continue to bring this to the community so that they can see that there really can be a career in the arts like that for them.’
SA: One of the performances last year, “Stories of my Sisters: Diary of Mad Black Woman” choreographed by Taylor Richardson, gave me the shivers. It was about being able to be an angry woman. Women, especially Black women, are often silenced and you often can’t show that you’re angry. She said ‘let’s just put it all out there. Let’s just be angry’. It was a beautiful presentation of it.
CW: It was impeccable, and it was great because she was a student at Towson. This was someone who had not even entered into their professional career. That’s why I love the festival, because we get a range of choreographers. We’re not just getting seasoned professionals, we’re getting emerging choreographers. Not only are young dancers seeing professionals in a show in which they are taking part, they are seeing students and people within the community who are just entering into the field. This is why we are doing what we are doing—so people can see that art exists and resides here in the Baltimore region. We need to amplify varying voices in our field so that we can see the richness of what we do. Dance is life in my mindset and when we pair these conversations, when we bring it to the forefront for the community, we develop an appreciation for art that exists beyond the stage.
The Black Choreographers Festival runs October 13-15, 2023 at Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Avenue, Baltimore, MD, 21224. For more information and tickets, go online.