Deeply Rooted Dance Theater reaches for lofty goals
Dance companies are like restaurants: If they survive five years, they're doing pretty well; making it to ten is something to crow about. But Kevin Iega Jeff, artistic director of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, isn't playing cock of the walk. His company—which celebrates its tenth anniversary with performances at the Beverly Arts Center from Thursday 17 through Sunday 20—has earned a place on the city's dance scene, yet continues to struggle for the kind of recognition and support that can make it an unmistakable star.
Like other African-American companies, Deeply Rooted has had to contend with a culture that often deems any black artistic enterprise as edifying, but apart from mainstream experience—something "good" for the "community," but nothing to be taken seriously as fine art. Despite their ultimate success, even writer James Baldwin, painter Romare Bearden and Renaissance man Paul Robeson were all at some point ghettoized by the dominant culture; just aspiring to be artists in the first place was a challenge to society. While issues of empowerment and self-identity often permeated their efforts and arguably limited their appeal, a good segment of the population came to welcome their works as expressions of specific human experience.
But dance—no matter what its source—has always been the least championed of the arts. So it's no wonder that dance artists of color are still fighting the good fight. "When I talked about building a company with an African-American aesthetic," Jeff recalls, "somehow that seemed exclusive to people, that it might not include them. And in my mind [the term African-American aesthetic] is extremely inclusive. Some of the cultural framing of that aesthetic is based on African traditions, but it's also based on American traditions. I think the concept 'African-American' is really reflective of the influences of African people and people who live in America. The work that we do ranges from Dunham technique to Western African techniques. And we're well versed in ballet, as well as Martha Graham, Lester Horton and José Limõn."
The company has developed an audience locally and has begun to establish a national profile with appearances in New York and elsewhere. However, the businessman in Jeff bemoans the fact that the organization remains distanced from funding sources that might take it to the next level. "Being in the arts is challenging for anybody," he admits, "no matter what your aesthetic or cultural background. When Deeply Rooted was founded, we certainly did not have the ears of the white funding establishment. There were some that were supportive—the Joyce Foundation came onboard right away, the Polk Bros. Foundation came onboard right away—but there were many that were just not looking at us. And we still don't have the kind of access to support that I think the company deserves."
In the late '90s, playwright August Wilson dared to voice the idea that America's black theatrical artists and their constituency needed to make their own way and not wait or cater to the white establishment. It was a call some denounced as separatist. No matter how one characterizes it, Jeff doesn't see that directive as an effective strategy for his company. "You have to build from who and where you are," he says. "I'm very comfortable knowing who I am as a black man and living that fully. At the same time, I'm able to appreciate the value of other people. We're a company that's trying to speak to humanity, period."
That intention will be evident to anyone who catches the company this week. Associate artistic director Gary Abbott offers Hand to Mouth, a tribute to the Kenyan and Somali victims of last year's tsunami, while Jeff premieres Naeemah's Room, inspired by lessons he learned from his late sister, who suffered from depression. "There is no world-renowned African-American voice in Chicago dance," Jeff says. "I think we have the potential to be that voice."
Deeply Rooted Dance Theater performs Thursday 17 through Sunday 20 at the Beverly Arts Center.