INTERVIEW: Debbie Allen on CityDance’s DREAMSCAPE
Interview by Raquel Lake
In an effort to raise funds and spread awareness of the importance of supporting dance for kids and young artists in the DC area, CityDance put on a charity performance entitled DREAMSCAPE. The show featured many of the kids that benefit from their programs, as well as professional performers. I had the pleasure of interviewing the host of this evening, the award-winning and multi-talented dancer, writer, and director, none other than the incomparable Ms. Debbie Allen.
In her career spanning over three decades, Ms. Allen has accomplished many things. She got her start as a dancer and has since gone on to change the face of dance and entertainment. Ms. Allen, the dynamic dancer, actress, and accomplished director, has won three Emmys and a Golden Globe, as well as a host of other awards, and she is currently the executive producer of Grey’s Anatomy. Understanding the great vehicle that dance can be for educating children, Ms. Allen has never shied away from being a vocal activist for the arts throughout her career. She acknowledged CityDance’s focus on helping kids as being near and dear to her heart. Ms. Allen continues to use her own creative work (she has been an artist in residence at the Kennedy Center for the last 15 years) to help educate young dancers and uses art as a way to solve issues they may face in their communities.
Here is a little of what the multi-talented Debbie Allen shared with me about CityDance and DREAMSCAPE, the role of dance, and the continued need for art.
Raquel Lake: Hello Ms. Allen, it is a pleasure to meet you! I am super super excited to see DREAMSCAPE.
Debbie Allen: Me too!
RL: What is DREAMSCAPE?
DA: Well, DREAMSCAPE is an initiative to give opportunity to so many gifted young people in the art of dance who otherwise would not have that. It is expanding the footprint of the art dramatically here in the DC and Maryland area. And what happens here is certainly significant to the rest of the world.
RL: Absolutely. So what excites you about this project?
DA: Well what excites me… excite is not the word, it’s not excitement. Rather what is important to me is that you have a team of very conscientious community leaders, parents, and creative people who are coming together to make something possible. They are giving the possibilities to young people, and that’s what’s important.
RL: So what do you feel is the role of live art in society right now?
DA: Well now, you are asking questions I know you know the answer to. But you are asking for my answer, so I will start by quoting the great John F. Kennedy: “The artist is the keeper of the truth.” The artist is the one that reflects most that which is most relevant and important in our society. Without the artist, I don’t know where we would be. It’s like cultural literacy, the intellectual critique that comes out of the world of the arts is something that is very much a part of the American fabric.
RL: I just asked about live art in particular because I feel like now we live in a time where everything is about streaming, or a gif, or a meme. We are so tied into our technology, that I feel there is a need to see stuff live as it happens.
DA: Yes, it is, but let’s go back further. There is a need to just expose people to the arts. That’s where it starts. If they have computers in their classroom when they are in the first grade, then they are going to be on social media. If there is no arts program when they go to public school in the first grade, if there is no music theory, if there is no dance program, they are not being educated properly. So they are not invested. So we can’t blame technology. We have to blame our educational system, which is still a dinosaur.
RL: I agree with you. I am also a teacher, and there is a great need to expand the arts. I often use art to help a student that tells me that they can’t figure out a problem because they are not smart enough.
DA: Yes, the process of teaching needs to really get back to, hmmm… interdisciplinary formating. You know when you are teaching mathematics, there may be a way that music could be a part of the teaching. That would make it really cool and fun and engaging.
RL: So true. So what role can the dancer play?
DA: It’s all different. There’s no one role that anyone can play. Politicians play a lot of different roles, teachers play a lot of different roles. Some need to be the hard ass, bad ass teacher, some need to be the encouraging, loving teacher. It depends, there’s no one thing, but to dance is a beautiful thing. Hopefully it inspires people to get involved. And to see it and support it.
RL: What still inspires you about dance?
DA: What inspires me is going into that place at the end of the room and finding expression or finding a way to create something that touches. It’s a wonderful process. It’s not so easy.
RL: What advice would you give a new dancer and to an older dancer? I ask that because our society tends to focus more on new or young but can often forget about the contributions of older dancers and artists. As an artist ages, I believe there are words of encouragement they might still need.
DA: Well, old, new, there are different parts. One of my former students, Corey Hawkins, who was part of one of my first big productions at the Kennedy Center, he was just nominated for a Tony for Best Actor…
DA: …on Broadway in Six Degrees Of Separation. And when I look at Corey and I think about how he started and where he is now… What’s your question again?
RL: What advice would you have for a new artist?
DA: So this play he’s in, I remember being interviewed because I am one of his mentors. He is with some real kinda heavyweight people. They said well, “Wow what do you think about Corey being in a play with these people? How is he going to measure up?” I said well, “They can’t play his part. He can’t play their part either. So everybody needs to find their part. Find their it. Don’t stop looking for it. Don’t stop looking for your part. So don’t go oh my god I can’t do that.” Well what do you do? What can you do? So you have to keep on it. You know that today there are so many avenues to be creative. People make movies with their cell phones. I mean I don’t know how to do it, but people are doing that. So it’s not a matter of, I think, old or young because a lot of things that some of us who are older know that younger people don’t, and we still can learn from younger people who come in without any rules, which is great. They are just ready to explore. So I would just say that number one as a dancer you have to keep training. If you want to stay in it, you have to train.
RL: I have reviewed a few shows that featured older dancers, and there is just something so special about the quality of the movement that I know comes from having done it for a long time, and I appreciate it. I just feel like the contributions are sometimes missed because there is too much focus on what the younger dancer can do.
DA: And you don’t have that bunion.
RL: That’s why I asked the question, it doesn’t have to be such a dichotomy, one pitted against the other. So what advice would you give to an older dancer?
DA: Just stay in it. If you want to keep doing it, just stay in it. Keep training.
RL: So anything new coming up for you?
DA: Pretty busy trying to reboot Stop The Madness, a piece that I did at the Kennedy Center [a few years back] so it will be ready for this October. [It’s] a show that will address all the unsettling issues that are happening in every community across America. Issues like violence, drugs and education… also shedding a light on the role of religion, parenting, policing, etc. I am actively trying to bring back the grassroots community activism. I feel working with the community can be very healing and bring people together. Lastly, I am executive producing Grey’s Anatomy, so I am just finishing the last edits on the finale and getting prepared for next season.
RL: Well I appreciate you taking this time to speak with me, so happy to talk to you. I am excited to see the show.
DA: And I am happy to talk to you too! I am excited to see the show too! It is going to be my first time seeing them.
RL: Thank you so much Ms. Allen. This was so inspiring.
DA: Stay at it, and go back to class. Don’t stop!