When Leatrice Ellzy Wright, curator of the ELEVATE: WEST END arts festival, was asked to choose one ballet from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s online repertory, she immediately knew what would dovetail with the festival’s social justice theme — Lazarus, Rennie Harris’ masterwork inspired by Ailey’s experiences growing up in Jim Crow-era Texas and the challenges he faced when founding his company in 1958, some of which still hold true today.
“Lazarus tells that story and addresses those inequities,” Wright says. “It basically supports the story that we’re telling through the entire festival, because once again, 50-plus years later, we still are dealing with the same issues.”
The pandemic, racial unrest, economic hardships and divisive politics have put unprecedented strains on our systems, Wright says in her curatorial statement, exposing the systems’ vulnerabilities and inequities. With social justice at its forefront, ELEVATE 2020: Equity, Activism, Engagement explores those themes through multiple lenses, with a substantial focus on Atlanta’s historic West End neighborhood. The seven-day festival opens this Sunday (October 4) and runs through October 10.
The online festival, produced by the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, shows remarkable breadth and density in more than 56 hours of mostly virtual programmed content including visual art, music, film, poetry, panel discussions and conversations with such luminaries as author and playwright Pearl Cleage and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. For the complete schedule, click HERE.
Wright has woven dance into the programming. Tuesday’s Dancing Into a New Normal – Atlanta Dancers Respond to Covid-19 features 10 videos by such metro choreographers as Indya Childs, Corian Ellisor and Kathleen Wessel. As part of Ailey’s Destination Dance Atlanta program on Tuesday, AREA will present Allyne D. Gartrell’s This Bitter Earth, and Atlanta Ballet will present Sunrise Divine, a collaboration by choreographer Dwight Rhoden and composer Kevin P. Johnson with the Spelman College Glee Club and the Golden Gate Singers. Thursday’s lineup will conclude with a film of Ailey dancers doing Lazarus.
Wright, a longtime artistic programming director for the National Black Arts Festival, is now executive director at the Hammonds House Museum. Her curatorial approach emphasizes art and scholarship while seeking to connect with people in different layers of the community.
Wright spoke with ArtsATL about how ELEVATE has a community-building blend of visual arts, performance and cultural events, and aims to heighten awareness of issues surrounding social justice while continuing to hold a hopeful vision for the future.
ArtsATL: How did you approach curating the festival at such a critical moment in history, especially for residents of West End?
Leatrice Ellzy Wright: On January 1, entering a new decade, we thought it was going to be the best ever, only to bump into this pandemic, and then, the social unrest and this real examination of equity and injustice in this country [and] around the world. When we went to digital, it really opened up the possibilities. There were so many more people and ideas that we were able to incorporate, even the dance, and that really meshed with our curatorial statement.
ArtsATL: How did dance come into the mix?
Wright: In the beginning of the pandemic, the Office of Cultural Affairs put out an Request for Proposals for artists asking how the pandemic was impacting their work. People sent everything — poetry, essays and dance videos — and they gave money out based on that. Some of this work is really thoughtful and pretty amazing. There’s Kathleen Wessel — in her HERE(after) piece, where the movement takes place in a cemetery. A number of people dealt with Covid and the isolation of Covid. Then you have Indya Childs, who has a powerful piece called Loaded, which focuses on the social unrest.
ArtsATL: How might the power of Black dancing bodies and Black choreographers’ voices illuminate the messages of other artists and thinkers you’re presenting?
Wright: There’s this thought that the stories that Black artists tell are often the stories of their experiences, the experiences of their communities, the stories of Black bodies, of Black thought, everything that has happened to them. That is their experience. Also, that they bring to the stage with them.
I remember talking to an Ailey dancer years ago, and she was telling me that when they would travel around the world, Alvin Ailey would say to them, “You need to take everything in. Eat the food, get a taste of the culture, because when you do not have any of this, there’s nothing for you to give people when you go onstage. All of these things become the culmination of who you are.”
It’s the same kind of concept. Black trauma and Black joy and Black resistance are part of every limb and part of the way we move, and the way a dancer moves, and the way a dancer comes to the work — all of that, they bring with them. These dancers embody all that and what the festival is about.
ArtsATL: What’s the takeaway for people who tune in?
Wright: So much change has happened over 50 years, right? And then we can also go back further than that, and there’s been absolute change. People have more opportunities than they had. The right to vote is a major change. But when we look at it — and this is the conversation that Andrew Young and I had in preparation for his talk during this festival — for all the change that happened because of the work that he and Dr. Martin Luther King and everyone did, we’re still having the same conversation that they were having in the ’60s. Because what is not changed are the systems. And it is the systems of inequity. It is the systems of racism. It is the systems of power that must be dismantled for us to really live in a just and equitable nation.
What happens is that we’re so busy in our day-to-day life that we don’t really think about the fact that there are some people who can decide that they want to live any place that they want to live. But there are others who are kind of redlined into certain areas. And then, even if they want to, and have the money — because of the way that the system is set up — there are still many, many obstacles that can be put in the way in order for them not to get their dream house or their dream X or Y or Z. These are the things in America that are so deeply embedded that no one even thinks about them anymore.
The other walkaway, that we like people to see through the lens of artists, is what hope looks like. What can we look like? What is the ideal? We can debate these things and we can disagree. However, the question is, and the challenge is, there’s always that need to be a hope for the future. What is the hope for our children? What is the hope for our future generations? How do we become a better nation as a result of us understanding the issues and working together to solve them? I hope that through this festival, people see a glimpse of that.
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