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.

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ABOUT THE SHOW: Shelter

Incidentally, I attended opening night of “Shelter” at the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square on the opening night of Hurricane Matthew, a Category 5 storm expected to ravage much of the U.S. Southeastern coast. Despite most of the state (including Charlotte) suffering only light rain showers last Friday, I was glad to enjoy the haven of “Shelter”, the joint dance concert presented by Juliana Tilbury, founder and director of PLEXUS|dance, and Sarah Council, founder and director of Sarah Council Dance Projects.

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I became a fan of Dislocate when I saw the duet version at the North Carolina Dance Alliance’s Dance Swap in April. Choreographed by Sarah Council with the dancers, the quartet rendition in its Charlotte premiere brought back Sarah Ingel, this time with Charlotte Duncan, Breanne Horne, and co-producer Juliana Tilbury (spoiler alert… she’s in everything!). As the lights dimmed I tried to clear my memory of the earlier version, just to go into it with a clean slate. But as the four dancers entered, walking slowly in a single file diagonal line, this Dislocate already looked different. At times the women, wearing different shades and shapes of sleeveless collared shirts and leggings, moved communally; they partnered, supported each other, and breathed together (a lot). Other times they broke apart (most notably the closing solo by powerhouse Sarah Ingel), but their sense of unity was always apparent. Council’s crafted choreography, set to the music of contemporary dance favorite Mike Wall, was often gestural, but not minimal. The dancers moved with precision and fluidity (a cohesive quality that lingered throughout the show). My enjoyment was only interrupted by the hissy sound quality of recorded interviews with two international refugees (I only know this from Dance Swap) provided by Project 658.

There was a slight disconnect in Dislocate, as four Caucasian (at least looking) women dancing to the heavily accented voices of African (at least sounding) refugees seemed a bit disparate. But when I shifted my gaze and just watched the dancers unfold in this thoughtful work without overthinking the context, I found myself savoring Dislocate with more ease. The piece concluded with the dancers again walking slowly, this time to stage left, suggesting traveling or moving forward. One hopes that these bodies/voices find a home and sense of belonging, where ever they land.

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Juliana Tilbury reprised That Belongs to You, Dear (2011), which she this time danced herself with Eric Mullis, who returned to the role. By default their two long, thin, and tangling bodies, coupled with the piece’s title, suggested a romantic rapport. Yet there was nothing sexual about the duet; on the contrary the two dancers beautifully conveyed the awkwardness and struggle that accompanies any intimate relationship, especially long term. They had a sort of cat and mouse exchange, purposely never timing their connections quite right. When they did unite, spooning on the marly or in a effortless lift, Mullis and Tilbury surrendered to each other with a sense of fleeting tenderness that we would all be lucky to experience. That Belongs to You, Dear faded into the night with the couple still dancing (different phrases) close to each other, but not connecting.

Two trios filled the space between Dislocate and Dear. Tilbury’s Four Walls made its debut in “Shelter” (coincidence?). E.E. Balcos (Associate Professor of Dance at UNC Charlotte), Jackie O’Toole (Assistant Professor of  Dance at Johnson C. Smith University), and the choreographer moved with strength, confidence, and ease, in contact and alone. Their intended relationship was not entirely clear, although I didn’t mind. Inspired by watching this trio of seasoned and sure dancers move with abandon and grace, I almost wasn’t ready for Four Walls to close as Tilbury wrapped up a riveting solo, walking slowly off stage as the lights faded.

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Council presented an excerpt of Staring at Stones (2012) to the Appalachia music of Donna Ray Norton and others. Duncan, Horne, and Tilbury were captivating in their powerful movement and the rag tag chic costumes by Mandarin Wu. I secretly subtitled the piece Oh, Sister, Where Art Thou (if the sisters were angry, badass, prairie wives, fed up with the misogynistic, condescending, and abusive behavior of their male counterparts who were probably gallivanting about, waiving their rifles in the air, bullying native tribes and grabbing women’s pussies. Ok, maybe I let my imagination run wild… or I just watched the second presidential debates.) But these women WERE wild – with passion and conviction to their dancing and characters. Stones was the clearest piece in “Shelter” in terms of intent and personality. When they wiped their hands to the side of their skirts, looking off in the distance, you knew what they were thinking; when they partnered and repeated tableaus, their supportive bind only strengthened. These four women (as I am including the choreographer) left me feeling empowered and grateful. My only regret was that Stones was the third piece in a row to conclude with the dancers, again, walking slowly into the dark – a beautiful image, but we had seen it before… twice.

So, thank you Juliana and Sarah for “Shelter” – shelter from mediocrity, from excessive virtuosity, from work that is under rehearsed. Thank you for not spoon feeding us or being too obtuse. Thank you for your engaging, thoughtful, and skillful dances and dancers. As I walked out of “Shelter” into Matthew’s drizzle, I felt refreshed and hopeful for the forecast of dance in Charlotte. I’ll certainly be on the look out for your next landfall.


photos: PLEXUS|dance, Sarah Council Dance Projects, and PTM Photography

SEE THE SHOW: UNCC Faculty Dance Concert

Most concerts on a university campus showcase work produced or performed by undergraduate students. But next weekend the UNC Charlotte Department of Dance will present two nights of work choreographed by professors E.E. Balcos, Rachel Barker, Kim Jones, and Tamara Williams. The Faculty Dance Concert will also feature musical selections by  the department’s new music director, Shamou. Performers on the concert include guest dancers from Charlotte and beyond, as well as other faculty members, ensuring two diverse and well-crafted evenings of dance.

E.E. Balcos, in collaboration with music director Shamou, presents Ancestral Tides: A Contact & Music Improvisation. This 15-minute work is performed in three sections of improvised contact dance and electronic and acoustic music. Additionally, microphones suspended above the stage will capture the dancers’ vocalizations, blurring the lines between musician and mover. Also featuring Anthony Oliva, a former member of Pilobolus Dance Theater, this integrative performance is a tribute to the people of Balcos’ and Shamou’s respective ancient tribes.

Rachel Barker’s Welcome follows a stream-of-consciousness format, a result of revealing physical, sensory, and cognitive attentions that occur at any given moment. For this piece, Barker’s rehearsal process focused on awareness in improvisation and performance and embracing vulnerability. This trio, funded by the UNCC Faculty Research Grant, is performed by Juliana Tilbury-Carson (director and founder of PLEXUS dance) and two UNC Charlotte dance alumni: Caitlyn Swett (co-founder of Triptych Collective and independent Winston-Salem based artist) and Audrey Baran (director and founder of Baran Dance… hey that’s me!).

Two solos will make their Charlotte premiere on the concert. Kaddish revisited by Kim Jones, régisseur for the Martha Graham Resource Center, is based on the Jewish prayer of mourning. Choreographed in reaction to 9/11 and recent events in Syria and inspired by the work of early modern dance choreographer Anna Sokolow, Jones will perform to live music on violin and piano by guest artists Ludovica Tassani and Andrea Giovanni Lucchi. New Assistant Professor of Dance, Tamara Williams will present “Of the Past”, a section of a larger work, Morning Honeysuckle, Sunday’s Greed (2012). Exploring the history and ongoing injustices of African Americans in the United States, this piece is an affirmation that the current status of black lives is an echo of what has occurred in the past.

A poo-poo platter of artistry, the UNCC Faculty Dance concert presents a variety of movement and musical styles. The works presented are as diverse as the choreographers themselves, but the show is bound by the thoughtful intention, innovative creative practices, and overt professionalism behind every piece. UNC Charlotte is often forgotten in the view of Charlotte’s performance art community; it just seems so far away. But as an alumni, occasional adjunct lecturer, and performer in this contemporary dance concert, I can vouch that the 15-minute drive is well worth it. Some of the most avant-garde thinkers, movers, and makers are born in an academic setting, and UNC Charlotte is no exception. So take a leap, jump on North Tryon (eventually the Light Rail!) and check out what’s happening in the arts at your hometown university.

UNCC Faculty Dance Concert
September 16-17 @ 7:30pm
Robinson Hall for the Performing Arts
9201 University City Blvd.
Charlotte, NC 28223

TICKETS: $18 general admission / $12 UNC Charlotte faculty, staff, and alumni / $10 seniors / $8 all students. Buy online or call 704-687-1849.

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)