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Monday, February 23, 2015

From the Archives: Groundbreaking Black Artistry at BAM

In honor of Black History Month, we turned to the BAM Hamm Archives to learn more about some of the numerous legendary black artists who’ve graced our stages over the years. Many of these artists deeply integrated activism and their support for civil rights and equality into their art.

Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson was a pioneering artist best known for singing the iconic “Ol’ Man River” in stage and film productions of Show Boat. In 1931, he also performed a one-night song recital at BAM's very own Howard Gilman Opera House. In 2015, BAM presented the story of the civil rights activist and performer in the theatrical production The Tallest Tree in the Forest.


Marian Anderson
In 1938, Marian Anderson performed as part of an “Appreciation Series” at the Brooklyn Academy, in which artists gave lectures and recitals to demonstrate their art. Anderson was a part of a season that included recitals from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, dance performances by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and Doris Humphrey, and lectures by Bertrand Russell and Aaron Copland, among others. Anderson lived in the neighborhood and performed at BAM 12 times from 1938—65.

Pearl Primus
Following a career performing solo shows in New York City as well as an appearance in the New York revival of Showboat, dancer/choreographer Pearl Primus formed her own company in 1946. On April 13, 1948 they performed here as one of a new generation of less-known groups who were invited to perform.

Nina Simone
During a charged year in the civil rights movement Nina Simone brought her Evening in Black Gold to BAM. The 1970 live album Black Gold, recorded at Lincoln Center, features among its treasures the civil rights anthem “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” The album was nominated for a Grammy for best female R&B vocal performance, but lost to Aretha Franklin. Interestingly, in 1973 Franklin won a Grammy for her studio album that took its title from the Nina Simone song. Simone never won a Grammy in her lifetime, but her rendition of “I Loves You Porgy” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Baba Chuck Davis
BAM’s longest running annual program, DanceAfrica, was founded by Baba Chuck Davis in 1977. Davis has served as artistic director of the festival for 38 years. He started his Chuck Davis Dance Company in 1968 and it performed in the Lepercq Space (which houses the BAMcafé) for the first time in 1977. The company returned the next year, inviting other companies celebrating the African diaspora to perform with them. Gradually the Brooklyn  festival has grown to include an outdoor bazaar, films, music, and art in addition to performances on the Howard Gilman Opera House stage. Davis has expanded the festival to several cities in the US, including Chicago and Washington, DC.

Chuck Davis, 1977.
Chuck Davis Dance Company, 1977.

Bill T. Jones & Arnie Zane
Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane made their BAM debut in the second Next Wave series in 1982. The pair performed their work Secret Pastures in 1984 as Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and Company. The work featured sets by Keith Haring and music by Peter Gordon. Known for creating works on topical subjects, BTJ/AZ has been presented at BAM 11 times.

Arnie Zane and Bill T. Jones in Secret Pastures, 1984. 

Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The first annual Brooklyn Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was hosted by BAM in 1986. Every year the community is invited for a free event celebrating Dr. King. The first MLK Day event at BAM featured the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble under the musical direction of Tania Léon.

Alvin Ailey
Choreographer Alvin Ailey formed his company the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958. Ailey wrote in his autobiography, “The concert dance scene was basically closed to black dancers... I very much wanted to be a choreographer... and the time had come for me to make my own decisions.” His company first performed at BAM in 1968 and Ailey served as artistic director of the troupe until his death in 1989. AAADT continued to perform regularly at BAM over the years, and notably celebrated its 50th anniversary season in the Howard Gilman Opera House in 2008.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater,  April 6, 1968.

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