Charles O. Anderson spent two weeks during the Fall of 2019 working with the University of Utah’s School of Dance discussing issues of diversity, belonging, inclusion and equity in dance academia. He was instantaneously adored and we all inquired if he would ever consider relocating here. To our dismay he responded with a firm “absolutely not.” He returned at the end of January to continue his work with the U and surprised us with an unconfident “maybe” when the question was posed again. For a hilarious, unapologetically irreverent Black, gay male, Salt Lake City was unquestionably a bit of a culture shock for Anderson, as well as a drastic climate change. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he’s the head of the dance program at UT Austin and, having moved there from Philadelphia, continues to recover from that culture shock. He will return to SLC in March for a third and final visit with the U’s School of Dance, and again in the fall for a residency with Ririe-Woodbury – his first commission by a professional dance company, which is unfathomable to those who know him and his work.
His time at the U also included setting (Re)Current Unrest, part of his touring and ever-shifting repertoire, on some of the Ballet and Modern Dance students for the school’s Performing Dance Company and Utah Ballet I performances. I was hashtag-blessed to serve as his rehearsal assistant, and rehearsal director upon his departure.
I began our conversation by asking if there was anything in general he’d like to say about himself, or that he wanted people to know about him.
Charles O. Anderson: I’ve been at this for 25 years now and it’s funny … I know my career’s never failed but because I’ve been so decisive about not buying into the marketplace to become quote unquote successful, and about not buying into the way that success is recognized, there have been some repercussions …
With that statement, he refers to several Black choreographers who have achieved the dance world’s requirements for success – nods and recognition for crowd-pleasing (and appeasing) performance work, commissions for renowned companies, funded national and international tours. They’re good artists doing good work, but with a different mindset from Anderson.
Charles: I’m not them, and it’s not due to talent but to choices being made around the business of dance, for good or for ill … I’m much more invested in art as a platform for education and social justice than I am in saying look at how talented I am and look how amazing these dancers are. Pay me.
Alexandra Barbier: How long have you been dancing, and what has your path been?
Charles: I started dancing at 19. I was primarily a fully-formed human being when I stepped into a dance studio, so I don’t carry a lot of the baggage of childhood and the weird things said to children in dance. I started dancing in an Ivy League college …
Alex: Which one?
Charles: Cornell. It was the only one that had a dance program and it doesn’t have one anymore.
Alex: And dance was your major?
Charles: No, I went in majoring in mechanical engineering. Then I went to a dance concert and a party and then decided I was going to dance.
Alex: Unbelievable … so you studied dance at Cornell, and then what?
Charles: Well since I didn’t know any better, I also started choreographing literally the same year that I took my first dance class at Cornell. And the two got me full scholarships to American Dance Festival, so a lot of my training is really through those summer intensives. For three summers in a row, I spent six weeks at ADF and that was where I was exposed to things other than ballet and Cunningham technique. That was my saving grace because if I had only done those (ballet and Cunningham) I don’t know if I’d still be dancing!
He went on to explain how in that generation he was encouraged to go to the Ailey School and Dance Theatre of Harlem. That sort of racialized encouragement still happens in this generation, however, and I was reminded of another young, esteemed Black choreographer I’ve met who shared that he was frequently told to audition for the “Black” companies and The Lion King throughout his training, instead of other (distinctly white) companies and productions. But I digress. Anderson received scholarships to both AAADT, attended the first day of classes at Ailey, and realized it wasn’t quite the right fit for him.
Dancers, if you ever need the motivation to develop your social life outside of the studio, here it is: A self-proclaimed party boy, Anderson shares that his first dance jobs were not necessarily a result of his training (though that obviously didn’t hurt), but through the connections he made with other choreographer/party boys in clubs or at least outside of formal dance studios, namely Mark Dendy, Sean Curran, and Ronald K. Brown. The latter was a particularly major influence on him when he realized he wasn’t interested in the “traditional Black modern dance trajectory,” and after about three years of studying Brown’s work in New York, Anderson joined his company. Around the same time, Anderson became an assistant school principal in East Harlem, in a school for gifted-but-troubled students he related to because “they were really smart but with a lot of attitude.” Insert his notorious giggle here. As the first person to go to college on either side of his family, he felt the need to give back, or pay forward, as I see it, which ultimately shaped who he is today in terms of his artistic and professional life.
Alex: You eventually got an MFA in dance?
Charles: Yeah. I moved to Philly and got my MFA from Temple, which also cracked me open because I hadn’t met Black dance scholars like Kariamu Welsh and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. They became my mentors and were people who could satisfy my academic itch. They gave me language to articulate what I was interested in and why I kept gravitating to this work that’s working with Black vernacular forms but not traditionalists.
Alex: After Temple, did you immediately go into working in universities?
Charles: In some ways I’m like the Forrest Gump of dance. I moved to Philly and I didn’t know I was going to grad school. I moved there because the funding ecology for emerging choreographers was so amazing and I was like “Oh bet!” I was adjunct teaching at Temple and they convinced me to go to their grad program. After that, I still didn’t think I would go into academia because I was so burnt by Cornell. But at an American College Dance Association regional conference — God bless them, they’ve given me so many opportunities — I met the head of the dance program in Muhlenberg College, Karen Dearborn, who asked me to be an artist-in-residence. I was going to teach at a performing arts high school just to make money but she created a position just to hire me. That’s how I ended up in academia and I’ve never stepped away.
Alex: What’s your secret to staying sane?
Charles: I’m not invested in being in academia, to be blunt.
Alex: It just keeps happening.
Charles: Yeah, it’s one of the few areas in my life where I’m very clear – I’m offering a service so take it or leave it. I’m marketable. There are very few parts of my life where I have that kind of confidence. I’m like “I don’t even want to be here anyway, so take it or not.”
Dancers, tip number two: stay confident about your worth and your values. As I was editing this interview, Anderson was promoted to full professor at UT Austin, to his knowledge the first Black male to hold that rank in the school’s Department of Theatre and Dance. Not invested, my ass. Also, I guess this means he’s definitely not considering a Salt Lake City relocation … maybe. Bummer.
Alex: What do you think about dance in academia right now, in general? What are the trends? What’s the landscape?
Charles: There are some real personality splits in dance academia, and it’s actually reflective of our society. There are programs that are digging into being traditionalists and classicists, much like we see white culture trying to dig into being white. I’m saying that because there are also hyper-conservative Black programs in academia that are no more satisfying to me. A lot of the US is so anachronistic still; it’s stuck in modes of understanding itself that aren’t reflective of the populations it’s teaching anymore, which is why you see so many dance students taking classes outside of academia. They’re paying for a dance degree, and then they’re paying even more to go to a studio. That says a lot … I think that most dance programs in the US have a desire to be relevant but their methodologies are sometimes reproducing the same archaic systems that already existed.
Alex: How about outside of academia? Do you feel like the universities that you interact with are doing a good job at getting students ready for the world if they decide that they don’t want to teach in academia? If they want to be freelance artists?
Charles: Traditionalist, Eurocentric, Heteronormative faculties aren’t paying attention to the real power of the dance presenting field, the ones that dictate the temperature of the entire field. If you don’t pay attention to what they’re doing – when they’re behind, if they understand what’s going on sociopolitically, if they just impose their priorities or hierarchies in terms of what they think is relevant – we’re all fucked and folks like me — who are invested in anti-racist dance — are fucked over. And that’s what I’m seeing.
The presenting field is still so predominately — to be blunt — white middle-class females with savior complexes. They’re all kowtowing to nonsense that is not reflective of the time, or even of the time to come. It’s reflective of what makes people feel like they’re doing something (relevant), and they’re trying to get everyone to recreate that bullshit. I’m seeing a lot of young people buying into that shit and I’m like, that’s not really the kind of work you want to do but you know it will get you funded or get you on stage.
This is not me attacking the Kyle Abrahams or the Raja Reather Kellys. They’re great … but when you can see that they’ve been passed around almost like a cheap whore throughout this country and no other black artists — equally as talented — are getting that kind of attention have, that should give you a hint: nothing’s changed in the field.
Anderson is seeing dance professors of the Baby Boomer generation retire and Millenials rush to fill their spots. He suggests, and as one of them I mildly agree, that Millenials can be as rigid and inflexible as boomers. He urges us to not forget about Generation X, the generation to which he belongs, because of their intimate understanding of Boomers. They know the etiquette of their predecessors well. They can speak the code to get them into Universities, and then stealthily change the old systems. How? By empowering Millenials, and acting as though they (we) were the ones to initiate their changes. Sneaky.
As a hopeful future dance professor, I ended our conversation by asking Anderson a timely though somewhat cynical question. Nearly every job posting these days encourages members of underrepresented groups (read: people of color, lgbtqia+, women) and specialists in the African Diaspora to apply. Are programs truly interested in these individuals, or are they simply attempting to stay on trend and able to check a diversity box in a landscape where academia is (rightfully) under pressure to expand the demographics of their faculties?
Charles: I think that is absolutely a reality in some places. Sometimes there is a genuine, earnest desire to change but they don’t realize they’re stuck in the idea of having a curio cabinet. They can put all of their interesting artifacts inside of it, but they’re just trying to change the artifacts to look more current. That’s not doing the work (of diversity, equity, inclusion). When you pay attention to the structure of a lot of these job postings, you can literally see they’re still going to marginalize that content, but they’re going to pull it out to say, “Look! I have one of those!” But there are some universities doing the work, where diversity, inclusion, and equity in all dance forms are inherently embedded in their curriculums.
Alexandra Barbier is a dance artist and performance maker. She is a Modern Dance MFA candidate at the University of Utah and has taught courses on creative process, queer performance art, and dance in culture.