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Fostering Creativity and Equality Through Dance

by Bonnie Rosenstock
June 18, 2020
New York, NY
Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company in downtown Manhattan and Matthew Westerby’s uptown The Harlem Project have both created powerful forums for people of color to express themselves through the creative, regenerative power of dance. AOTDC and Matthew Westerby Company are both recent recipients of Dance/NYC grants, whose goal is to address the inequitable distribution of resources in the dance field by supporting dance makers with budgets between $25,000 and $1 million. I reached out to them via email about their present programs and future plans.

Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company was founded in 1972 by Ronn Pratt, Dolores Vanison-Blakley and Miriam Greaves to provide a platform for minority dancers and choreographers and to create a safe haven for inner city youth through its outreach programs and performances. It is headquartered in its own building in Manhattan’s East Village at 70 East 4th Street between Second and Third Avenues on the Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc), a cultural district founded to create a permanent home for the arts and to preserve the creative character of the neighborhood.

At the beginning of 2020, Artistic Director/choreographer Enrique Cruz DeJesus and Executive Director/longtime principal dancer Donna Clark, who are also offstage partners, were readying for spring rehearsals and working toward extending their presentation series, STUDIO to STAGE, a residency and performance opportunity for young choreographers. They had ongoing dance and wellness workshops and classes at their facility, along with plans for collaborations with new artists. When everything shut down, they had to look for ways to continue some form of their operations.

They have moved their young adult Saturday workshop classes and open classes online via Zoom as well the Choreography Lab, conducted by DeJesus, for their “vibrant” seniors. Prior to the pandemic, the group would typically meet in person twice weekly at the Carter Burden Covello Senior Center in East Harlem.

“They made the remarkable transition online easily and managed their technological challenges quickly,” the two wrote. “The seniors have already learned one new dance and had their Zoom debut performance in May. They are currently working on their second Zoom performance scheduled for the end of June.”

In conversations with artists, in lieu of their larger STUDIO TO STAGE program, they have decided to afford solo performers of various disciplines access to rehearsal space, a fully equipped studio theater and a platform to create and perform. The performances will be videotaped for online presentation and livestreamed in some instances. “These are undoubtably hard times, but special when we can think outside the box,” they said.

When the city reopens, they plan to conduct some of these performances for small audiences in their adjacent outdoor space. “An accessible platform for artists has been the vision of the organization since its inception in 1972, and the cathartic elements of creativity will serve many during this extraordinary time,” they stated. “We welcome improvisation and communication to move forward even if we are uncertain about the remainder of the year and next.”

Grant support will assist with facility expenses, staff salaries and artist fees. “Our plans for the foreseeable future are to conduct more online classes and virtual performances with the hopes that we can keep artists working and give them a place to express themselves,” they said. “We are open to adjusting to new norms and spend a lot of time rerouting and looking for resources to keep us going since we have limited earned income.”

England-born Matthew Westerby had lived in Harlem three years prior to initiating the Harlem Project in 2016. His goal was to connect to the neighborhood by using dance as the vehicle for community building and understanding. The multi-generational project includes professional dancers from MWC, community participants, children, teens and high school and college-age apprentice dancers from Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The Project presents a series of summer street performances, or “pop-up” shows, that culminate in the final event, where the work is performed at the Richard Rodgers Amphitheatre (18 Mt. Morris Park W.) in Marcus Garvey Park (Madison Avenue, E. 120th-124th Streets), free and open to the public. Last summer the cast included over 80 performers of all ages, both professional and community.

For now, the Project is on hold until the fall or beyond, with a possible scaled-back, site-specific version in the Park’s nearby Acropolis plaza. “I’ll work on this with the professional dancers and then include the community with some pre-show workshops, events, etc., that still bring people together as participants and audience as we’ve done in the past,” stated Westerby.

Westerby hopes to return in 2021 “with all cylinders firing,” he said. “We want to ensure The Harlem Project remains visible in the community and vital as an outlet to the young people we bring together to experience the arts in a professional setting, and for the community that comes together to support and experience live performance.”

He added, “We’ve slowly built our presence in Harlem, and we fully intend to continue this with the design of community programs that can be extended over the year and not just the summer months.”

MWC celebrated its 10th Anniversary season in fall 2019 with a premiere in collaboration with composers Bryan Senti and Rick Smith. “We’d hoped the work would have gotten some mileage in 2020, but it exists and it will stay alive, thankful we were able to have the season at all when this all happened just a couple of months later,” he said.

MWC was also collaborating with Hudson Guild Theatre Company for a dance adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, scheduled for early April, also on hold. “It is a fabulous celebration of world dance conceived by director Jim Furlong, and I’m excited to get it onstage, whenever that may be possible,” he said.

Like many dance makers, his main source of income is from teaching—children in public schools and private studios—as well as being adjunct faculty at a university. “Almost all of my work has transitioned to online instruction, so I’m able to continue working,” he said.

Westerby had been sheltering in place with his husband’s parents in Bremond, Texas (pop. ca. 900) and their dog Macy Grey for over two months and has just arrived back in the city. He spent that time running outside, “passing the odd tractor or a herd of cows,” taking workout classes online in the backyard, working on some improvised material in the open spaces and a new project for premiere in fall 2021 or early 2022. “Mentally, it was weird being away from the city for so long. Having work to keep up with keeps my brain occupied even if I’m worried about what the arts world will look like when this is over,” he said.

Westerby is thrilled that Dance/NYC awarded MWC a grant. “Our loss of income is taken seriously at a time when the arts sector is being hit so hard by the pandemic,” he said. “We’re planning to use it to help replace income from performances/projects that were lost in the spring as well as helping with The Harlem Project when it can finally happen, even in its scaled- back version for 2020.”

Performances by Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company, Matthew Westerby Company and The Harlem Project can be viewed on YouTube including Matthew Westerby's most recent film NOTES FROM AFAR, shot on location in Robertson County, Texas.

Says Westerby of the film: After leaving New York City for rural Texas a couple of months ago, I wanted to find some space, mental and physical, to create something that reflected on both isolation and distance while living in a vast expanse of space and time. Usually as a choreographer I have all of the things I take for granted - a studio, other bodies in space, a live audience - but for now, this is my take on the challenging times we're living through. The result is a short dance film titled Notes From Afar..
Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company in 'Tabernacle,' choreographed by Eleo Pomare.

Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company in "Tabernacle," choreographed by Eleo Pomare.

Photo © & courtesy of Quincy Scott


Matthew Westerby Dance Company in 'Save Me” performed at the Newport Dance Festival (RI), summer 2019.

Matthew Westerby Dance Company in "Save Me” performed at the Newport Dance Festival (RI), summer 2019.

Photo © & courtesy of Bill Peresta


Group of kids that have performed with the Westerby Harlem Project.

Group of kids that have performed with the Westerby Harlem Project.

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