GET TO KNOW: Camerin Watson

I feel weird that I am friends with nearly every choreographer or company I have profiled so far on this blog. But what can I say? The dance community of Charlotte is small and my friend pool is large. So I had a lovely and leisurely time talking with Camerin Watson, who I have known for many years as a colleague, co-producer, fellow dance maker, and friend. We met for chai Sunday afternoon and talked about dance and dreams (past and future).

Watson graduated with a BFA from UNC Greensboro in 2007, after which she briefly lived in Washington DC, working at the dance hub Dance Place. Out of love and logistics, she followed her boyfriend (now husband), Sean, to Charlotte in 2009 and, like most dancers in a new city, found challenges connecting to the arts community. She was working a lot and couldn’t find classes that fit with her schedule and movement aesthetic, but ended up taking class with Martha Connerton at Spirit Square (hey, me too!) and was part of her Kinetic Collective. Watson showed the early stages of her solo about racial tensions, wake (v): to become roused from a tranquil or inactive state at Fieldworks, an informal platform for dancers to show work and receive feedback. She continued making and presenting work at the Asheville and Greensboro Fringe Festivals, and in Atlanta. Watson also took classes with Justin Tornow at Open Door Studios and eventually took over her classes when Tornow relocated. Like many dancers, she originally had no desire to teach, but dreamt of dancing professionally with an established company (me too, girl). But fortunately, and out of necessity, she discovered her love of choreography and dance pedagogy while living in DC and carried it down South. 

Watson formed The Wake Project, a springboard for larger works examining issues of racism and reconciliation. She created a piece about working together and reaching across the aisle, which first performed in a tennis court at Midwood Park and later during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The soundscore for a piece called Stir consists of interviews with people about when they became aware of race.

The Wake Project later transitioned into TAPROOT, a multidisciplinary collaboration, which Watson co-founded with Brianna Smith and Alexander Windner Lieberman. The ensemble’s most widely performed piece, Ophelos, is an evening-length work fuzing text from Shakespeare’s Hamlet with movement and live music. The show is raw, intriguing, and slightly unsettling (what TAPROOT does best), but even more impressive is that the whole thing is one long structured improv. Utilizing improvisation and spoken word are hallmarks of Watson’s work, along with weaving social or political themes through movement and dialogue, overtly or subliminally. A recent TAPROOT work, Dinnerbell, performed last year at Petra’s in the inaugural BOOM Festival. It’s a funny-not-funny mashup of storytelling, physical theater, live music, and Sunday dinner about Southern stereotypes. I got to sit at one of my favorite bars, laugh a lot, and eat a biscuit – a good show in my book.

Did I mention that Watson was six months pregnant (with her second child) during last year’s BOOM (for which she is the project manager)? Like many female dancers (not me!) family has thrown a beautiful, but challenging curveball into her artistic endeavors. As a wife and mother of two boys, Caelan (2 years) and Ean (6 months), she has learned how to smartly rearrange her creative outlets. She has stepped back from TAPROOT, and is focusing on being a damn good dance educator and festival organizer. While she’s sad about not presenting a full show in BOOM 2017, she’s excited about being an integral part of Charlotte’s own fringe festival. Watson always wanted to create a space for “guerrilla style art and weird things happening,” and now it’s happening for the second year in a row. Again, not a role she thought she would take on, but that’s the cool thing about Charlotte. “You find something you want to make happen, and the potential is there,” – something not so easy in larger, more competitive cities.

She’s not done performing, far from it. In fact, she performed her signature solo, wake, nine times last year. After the Charleston church shooting in 2015, she felt it was time to  bring the piece back to life in the context of current events. Watson kept the original self-written text, revised the movement, and set out on a mission to show the work once in honor each victim of the shooting. She performed at the Beatties Ford Road Library, at the Loose Leaves Showcase, with the ASC’s Culture Blocks project, in my front yard for Yard Art Day, and five other venues. After she danced at the Beatties Ford Road Library, a woman wearing a hijab approached Watson, teary faced, unable to speak, and overcome with emotion. Watson remembers, “If no one else heard (my piece), that would have made it worth it.” 

Watson is a white woman with red hair and freckles who makes work largely about racism. When I asked her what that’s like, she recalled her mother, who “was always very aware of white privilege” and instilled in Watson a desire to not live in a divided community. She chose not to take all AP classes (which were all white) in her high school (which was mostly black); she joined the cheerleading squad (which was black) instead of the dance team (which was white); at UNCG she was part of a multicultural sorority. All of these choices “helped me see how my experiences were affected by the color of my skin.” She also speculates that being married to a black man and having children who are not white gives her a unique perspective. She doesn’t claim to know what it feels like to be a black mother, but “my fear for my brown children is significant and similar to that of women of color.”

wake is inspired by Watson’s story, about being a white woman in a racially divided world – a potentially touchy subject. But if you’ve ever seen Watson dance, you know she is a risk taker. She doesn’t have the answer to social divisiveness, but knows that starting a conversation is part of it. She’s willing to be wrong, and corrected, and possibly offensive, if it means people will have an uncomfortable or charged dialogue. Her fear of being silent is greater than the consequences of not addressing the issues at all. Watson asserts,“If no risks are taken, we can’t ever really talk about it.”

Watson talks about it (race, sexism, domestic violence, etc.) the best way she knows how – through dance. She claims that she didn’t choose to be a dancer, but it was what she could do, and has somehow turned it into a way to make a living AND a statement. Watson now has a dream of performing wake in all fifty U.S. states, perhaps in the next ten years, or over a lifetime. Having two young boys and dance teacher’s salary make that a lofty goal, but she’s hopeful. She’d also like to see more unity within the arts community of Charlotte, creating more platforms for critical feedback and collaborative work. She’s an advocate for just MORE dance, as “Any dance supports all dance.” Watson is, thankfully, an active and integral part of Charlotte’s dance community as it continues to grow, as she hopes, with less divisiveness and more communal support. Me too, girl… me too.

photo: Dick Costa

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GET TO KNOW: Wanda Ebright

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The Unapologetic Classicist

It was not easy to nail down Wanda Ebright for an interview. She’s a busy woman – a tenured Associate Professor of Dance and the coordinator for the Department of Visual & Performing Arts at Johnson C. Smith University, a PhD candidate in Dance at Texas Women’s University, an avid patron of dance performances and classes in Charlotte, and a mother of two daughters. After a few weeks of email tag, we finally met for coffee on a warm winter day and talked about dance: past, present, and future.

Wanda’s primary medium is ballet, as a dancer, choreographer, and educator, but she’s a self-proclaimed non-traditional ballerina. Tall, athletic, and African American, she fell in love with ballet but also found rejection as a young dancer. She studied summers at The Ailey School, Nashville ballet, Charleston Ballet Theater and danced with Memphis Classical Ballet while an undergraduate at the University of Memphis. (A multifaceted woman, she was a French major with a minor in History.) However, after being told too many times and ways that “Black people don’t do very well in ballet,” she wore tired of the game, and that was okay. “I wanted more than performing, so it wasn’t hard for me to give up,” admitting, “I’m too much of a control freak.” She nerds out on taking care of the overarching details – whether the lighting cues are fixed, the programs got printed or the house opens on time. She’d rather direct, educate, and create the space that enables dancers to focus on being dancers. A classic multitasker, Wanda also “didn’t want to have to choose between performance, teaching, choreography, research and writing. I wanted to do all of it. The only job that values all of it is in higher education, and that requires a masters degree.” (Insert big head nods on my side of the table.)

Ebright earned her MFA from Florida State University, where she still loved ballet but “I don’t look like a sylph, and that’s okay.” She chose to specialize in Graham-based modern, which didn’t make her apologize for her commanding presence. “I didn’t have to pretend to be frail… There was no pressure to feel like the heroine of every story who dies because some man breaks her heart.” She realized, “Oh, I can just be a strong, powerful woman? Let’s to that!” But Wanda appreciates the many parallels between ballet and Graham technique. “(Martha Graham) tried to make this radical break (from ballet), but in my mind and in my body it all assimilated beautifully.” She equates the Graham spiral to écarté & croisé and a high lift to cambré, happily marrying the two genres of dance where she feels most at home.

When Wanda began teaching at JCSU eight years ago, (previously she taught at Coker College in Hartsville, SC for as long) there was no dance program. Since then, she has created an Interdisciplinary Visual & Performing Arts Major with a Dance concentration, a Bachelors of Arts in Dance, added just recently added a Dance minor. She was the department chair for her first four years at the historically black university, and only stepped down to pursue her PhD. (Because, what’s just one more thing?)

Wanda’s personal teaching philosophy is “Versatility is the key to employability.” Her goal is to open dancers up to what they can be, not to break them down. If a strong ballet dancer enters the program, she should leave as a stronger ballet dancer who can also do jazz, modern, and African. She is interested in expanding dancers’ perceptions of themselves and encourages them not to box themselves into a category. Wanda asks them, “What do YOU want to do? What speaks to YOU? Do that, then build on it and do more.” In a refreshing approach to dance education, she confirms, “We try to add, not take away. It only diversifies and strengthens them.”

She knows from experience, if you can only do one thing you might miss out on bigger things. “Someone is always looking for a dancer, teacher, choreographer.” She prides her department on emphasizing the practical and academic sides of dance in their non-studio classes. They prepare students to be proactive and resourceful. “You have to be able to present yourself… If you can’t find a job, you make one!” She teaches students to research, to know WHY they are making choices in their work, in and out of the studio. Wanda seeks to create “THINKING, WRITING DANCERS.” (Insert double snaps on my side of the table.)

She’s active in the dance community as well, although, admittedly less so recently since working on her PhD dissertation. Wanda likes to plug people together, facilitating connections between dancers, local and visiting. She remembers when Charlotte felt much more polarized; it was basically North Carolina Dance Theatre and a handful of small companies, like Martha Connerton’s Kinetic Works. Now, she’s excited about the variety of dancers, companies, and venues for performance in town. Festivals like Bloom, the Charlotte Dance Festival, and Loose Leaves, are creating spaces for more versatility and visibility in dance. As the population of Charlotte grows, so does the dance community. “People are coming in and staking their claim” but in a good way. Wanda references New York City, where one wishes there were LESS dancers. In Charlotte, “there’s room for all types and an audience for every hint of difference that each company holds.”

Wanda’s only wish would be for even MORE variety. Since UNC Greensboro holds the only MFA program in North Carolina and many graduates end up in larger surrounding cities, like Charlotte, there’s a “tendency for things to look similar.” She’s would like to see more jazz dance, “an underexplored concert form.” In her own work, she blends her favorites genres (ballet, Graham, and jazz) as she doesn’t compartmentalize dance styles. She encourages other choreographers, just like her students, to do the same. “Take risks! That’s how growing pains happen in a city.” There’s a market for everything to be explored. Wanda had some crazy ideas like “What if there was an Afro-Latin ballet company?” or (for shame) just MORE ballet!? She hypothesizes that dancers shy away from making and performing ballet for fear of being seen as a threat to, or competing with, Charlotte Ballet. A legitimate, but hampering concern. 

But not for her. Ebright’s dance company, The Wanda Project, is a contemporary ballet company she started while teaching at Coker College. What began as a pick up company of dancers she met in her travels teaching around the country is now the resident company at JCSU. The Wanda Project has performed at Piccolo Spoleto, the Denver Independent Choreographers Project, BalletFest Atlanta, and more, although they’ve also been on hiatus since Ebright began pursuing her doctorate in dance (geez, that PhD stuff sounds like hard work or something.)

Other movers and makers she admires are Ben Kubie and Kati Hanlon Mayo, noting “you can’t have too many positive ballet instructors.” She shouts out to her fellow tradition keepers – Kim Jones of UNC Charlotte and her colleague Jackie O’Toole. Kim Jones is a régisseur for the Martha Graham Resource Center and recently spearheaded the reconstruction project on the work of Paul Taylor. Jackie O’Toole is certified in Horton Technique, and Wanda labels the two of them “unapologetic classicists. We exist so people can break away (from the norms)”. On the more contemporary side, she admires the work of Juliana Tilbury Carson, Arlynn Zachary, Eric Mullis (and okay, me). “Each new person changes the whole… building the draw for students to come from undergrad and graduate programs”.

She also notes Latanya Johnson of OnQ Productions, Charlotte’s only professional black theater company, which circles (in my mind) back to Wanda’s beginnings in dance, as an unconventional ballerina. Refusing to believe that there was not a place a place for her in dance, much less the classical world, she not only carved out her own place, but also one for young students like her who may have been rejected by certain eyes and voices in the dance field. Dance is, in fact, for everybody, the powerhouses and the princesses alike.

When asked about her plans for the future, she speaks in a tone signifying that these are perhaps far off, but deep rooted plans. She wants to start a Masters program at Johnson C. Smith University, with the goal of being the first historically black college in the U.S. to offer an MFA in Dance. (Insert chills on my side of the table). As if she hasn’t already, Wanda Ebright hopes to create a place for experimentation, fusion, and inclusion. And then rest… maybe.

GET TO KNOW: Ben Kubie

I sat down over chai and coffee with Ben Kubie, former principal dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet). The relaxed atmosphere of Nova’s Bakery perfectly matched Ben’s demeanor – warm, inviting, and unassuming – qualities you may not expect from a retired professional ballet dancer. But as I learned from my colleague over our chat, “retired” sometimes means anything but “done”.

Ben first danced with NCDT from 1992-1993, the days of Artistic Director Salvatore Aiello. I mentioned that I have vivid memories of seeing the company during that time, particularly Sal’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” (Right of Spring), when Kati Hanlon Mayo knocked my socks (and all her clothes) off in the lead role. Apparently Ben danced in Le Sacre as well, and I immediately felt bad that I did not remember him. In his humble way he agreed that it would be difficult to recall much from that performance over 20 years ago except Kati’s riveting portrayal of the sacrificial virgin. But the bulk of his career with NCDT was from 1997-2004 under the artistic direction of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who will step down from the role next year. At that time NCDT was pretty much the only dance company in Charlotte, aside from the more cutting edge Moving Poets, and Ben enjoyed riding the reign of the premiere ballet company in not just the Queen City, but all of North Carolina for the better part of a decade.

He “retired” from NCDT in 2004, the same year he decided to finally complete his undergraduate degree, a retroactive step common among professional ballet dancers. Pamela Sofras, then chair of the Department of Dance (and Theatre) at UNC Charlotte, welcomed him into the program, under the stipulation that he dance in the inaugural performance in the new, state of the art theater in a production called On Your Toes. “She roped me in,” Ben joked, remembering the fun and absurdity of performing alongside college freshmen half his age.

After graduating, Ben went into professional fundraising and non-profit management for a roster of Charlotte based organizations: his alma mater NCDT, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the Arts and Science Council, social service agency UMAR, and most recently Central Piedmont Community College, where he was the director of development. Even in a corporate setting, Ben gravitated towards the arts and felt drawn to helping grassroots organizations find funds and resources for artistic endeavors. Also a single dad at the time, he needed to provide for his son, but couldn’t seem to shake the artsy fartsy world.

He wasn’t done dancing either, as it turned out. Jacque White, director and owner of Open Door Studios, asked Ben to perform a duet with her in the Charlotte Dance Festival in 2014. Based on personal experience with a parent’s struggle with dementia, Jacque needed a mature male dancer, an even rarer find than the bouncy ballet boys sought out by many choreographers. I can testify that the product of this collaboration was truly breathtaking. The tenderness, honesty, and abandon with which Ben and Jacque danced her piece was simply stunning. (I  may have ugly cried.)

Jacque began inviting Ben to guest teach at her studio, which offers classes for both youth and adult dancers. He had been “teaching dance in margins” for several years at Gay Porter’s Charlotte School of Ballet and around town, and had become a favorite among young and young-at-heart dancers. “I just enjoy the people that dance puts you around,” Ben explained. “There’s no competing, no agenda. We are all there for one purpose, for dance.” Ben is now a regular instructor at Open Door Studios and continues to guest teach throughout Charlotte.

He may be out of the non-profit fundraising game (for now), but Ben is still passionate about supporting grassroots arts groups. Ideally, he’d like to see more collaboration and greater access to alternative spaces. As a former colleague of Amy Bagwell at CPCC, he has the utmost admiration for what she and Amy Herman are doing with Goodyear Arts. Ben likes to see people “embrace creative thinking around development and buildings”. He’s inspired by what NODA was in the late 90’s and the access it gave artists to space, geographically and creatively.

On the other end of the spectrum, “Charlotte Ballet is banging on all cylinders”, and Ben is super impressed by their biggest annual fundraising platform, “Dancing with the Stars”. Just what it sounds like, big business people in Charlotte are paired with dancers from the company. They train together for weeks and the community can vote (donate) online for their favorite team. The campaign culminates in a production at the Belk Theater, where food, drinks, hooting, hollering, and more donating abound. “It’s a real who’s who of Charlotte,” Ben confirms.

Recognizing the disconnect between a lavish event like Dancing with the Stars and small artist groups, he’d love to see Charlotte Ballet “take the lead and make partnerships happen with grassroots arts companies”. Many artists feel alienated from the Arts and Science Council and need an intermediary to provide programs that seek funding and resources. “They need to create a link, then get out of way,” he advises. Ben introduced me to the term “carrying it from the bottom”, meaning fostering an idea from the ground up, ensuring its success, or at least fruition (as opposed to carrying it by the handle, where it might easily fall). But he’s optimistic. “It’s great to see small cultural dance companies and modern experimental work. Charlotte is getting there.”

He regrets that this city (as in its administration and population) are too afraid. Of what? BAD ART. People need to “be open to appreciating something they may or may not understand. If you don’t like something that’s fine. Don’t get hung up  just because you don’t like it or think its crap. Instead, admire that someone did it. Not everything has to be fed to you.” Thinking of his son, Joshua, he encourages Charlotte to “teach kids to appreciate something they may not  like. “I want my son to have a sense of value for something he may not necessarily  care for.” Joshua, like most 12 year old boys (and most Charlotteans), is by no stretch of the imagination an avid dance fan, despite living part time with Ben and his wife Traci Gilchrest, also a retired principal dancer from NCDT and currently the company’s repetiteur.

He’s got lots of ideas, inspired by his hometown of St. Louis, where there are many large, free cultural institutions. “This county could provide a semi-enclosed, multipurpose space, like in a park. Use county services to fix up some lights and sound. Be a little more experimental” and allow for “more diversity”. As we reached the bottom of our chai and coffee, Ben’s final wish for Charlotte was to “appreciate live performance. You are seeing something live, it is actually happening in front of you and around you. It may suck, but that does not mean it lacks  value. Most of what we watch is so edited, like reality TV. Live performance is unedited and that makes it special.”

Learn to appreciate sucky art and be a little more experimental. Bold statements for a retired principal ballet dancer, right? But Ben Kubie is a forward thinking box breaker, not just another man in tights. Maybe Charlotte should take note, get out there, and see some “sucky” art. Who knows? You make like it.


Next month…

SEE THE SHOW: UNCC Faculty Concert (preview)