As an art form based on moving bodies through space, there’s something deeply satisfying about Artistic Director Deborah Vaughan celebrating Dimension Dance Theater’s 50th anniversary at Mills College’s Lisser Hall. The two-night engagement Oct. 22-23 comes full circle, bringing Vaughan back to the campus where the oldest black dance company on the West Coast was born.
Growing up in Oakland, Vaughan was still in high school when she began taking modern and Afro-Haitian dance classes with choreographer and actress Ruth Beckford, a disciple and biographer of legendary dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham. Before she began directing the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program in 1969, Beckford founded the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department’s pioneering recreational modern dance department, where Vaughan discovered her passion for movement. She then studied with Beckford while she earned a graduate degree in dance from Mills College, immersing herself in ballet, modern dance, and a variety of dance traditions from across the African continent.
When Vaughan co-founded Dimensions Dance Theater in 1972 with Elendar Barnes and Shirley Brown, who were also Beckford students, the Black Arts movement was at its height and they sought to create works that would connect African Americans with related diaspora cultures throughout the Caribbean and Homeland.
“We didn’t see ourselves on stage,” said Vaughan, who as the company’s artistic director has become a leading figure responsible for guiding generations of dancers and choreographers. “That was the purpose, to create and explore dance forms derived from Africa. When you look at Africa and all of its influences around the world, our goal was to bring that to the stage. We started a company and have tried to continue to focus on the experiences of Africa and Africa America.”
The 50th anniversary program embodies that mission with new work from Dimensions collaborators Laura Elaine Ellis and Liberian choreographer Nimely Napla (both performances include a Q&A with the artists and company members). The latest iteration of Ellis’s “reflections”. (re)visited” speaks to the company’s resilience at a particularly challenging time. The work was originally conceived for the 2020 season of Dimensions, but Ellis, in collaboration with filmmaker Desiree Galves, transformed the dance into a film in response to the pandemic.
Created in close collaboration with the dancers, “reflections. [re]visited” was conceived in the months before the pandemic, but Ellis’s intention seems prescient. “I asked the dancers to write about fear, forgiveness, loss and other themes, immersing themselves in their own memories,” he said. “They created writings that became the source material for the movement, which became the five parts: ‘Run’, ‘Witness’, ‘Cycle’, ‘Ash’ and ‘Fly’. People have asked, are we running to or from something? No, we’re just running away from centuries of testing.
Last spring, she reconceived the piece as a site-specific work in San Francisco’s Minnesota Street Project Atrium with Tiersa Nureyev’s textile art outfits. And now she has reimagined it for the historic Lisser Hall proscenium stage with 10 dancers and text recited by poets Jordon E. Dabney and Atiya Ziyad. The collaboration with Dimensions builds on a relationship forged over three decades.
Like Vaughan, Ellis graduated from Mills and connected with Dimensions in 1986 when “I was looking for a home as an artist,” he said. “I felt like I found that home when I first came to that first Dimensions rehearsal. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with amazing artists through the company, Garth Fagan, Hugh Masekela, Omar Sosa. I’ve traveled to places I never dreamed I’d go.”
With Vaughan’s encouragement and guidance, Ellis launched the Black Choreographers Festival: Hear and Now in 2005. She is one of several dozen Dimensions alumni who have had international careers. “The legacy is super deep,” Ellis said.
Nimely Napla’s “Dai Zoe Bush — The Breaking of the Poro & Sande Bush” represents another significant facet of Dimensions’ legacy. The former director of the National Cultural Company of Liberia, Napla is a master dancer, craftsman, costume designer, and choreographer immersed in traditional Liberian culture. In recent decades, his work has focused on celebrating and preserving the music, dance and rituals all but lost after the civil wars that killed hundreds of thousands there between 1989-1997 and 1999-2003.
He first collaborated with Dimensions before bloodshed, presenting an early version of the folk ballet “The King’s Only Daughter”. Seeking a partner for a Creative Work Fund grant, she again turned to Dimensions for a new work based on the ceremonial dance rhythms of the Vai and Gola peoples of Grand Cape Mount County in northern Liberia, on the border with Sierra Leone.
“He lost quite a few members of his family during the war,” Vaughan said. “This is a way of keeping these rituals in his memory, presenting them so they won’t be forgotten.”
Championing the cultural by reimagining it, Dimensions Dance Theater continues to lead the way after half a century.
Contact Andrew Gilbert at email@example.com.
DIMENSIONS DANCE THEATER
Presents 50th anniversary recital
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22, 4 p.m. Oct. 23
Where: Lisser Hall, Mills College at Northeastern University, 5000 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland
Tickets: $15-$50; www.eventbrite.com (search Dimensions Dance Theatre); more information at www.dimensionsdance.org.