Performing Sons of Douglass, an original ballet by choreographer Steven Wilson, at this year’s Intersections Festival, the dancers of the Black Leaves Dance Company presented powerful images of grace and defiance, talent and beauty.
Founded by Wilson, D.C.’s resident all-Black, all-male, queer-inclusive company specializing in modern ballet had made its debut with a performance at the 2022 edition of Intersections. The fulfillment of a life’s dream for dancer, choreographer, educator, and activist Wilson, Black Leaves established a space for other artists to express their dreams, too, says artistic director Camal Pugh.
Pugh, himself a dancer and choreographer, now faces the daunting task of leading the company forward since Wilson’s untimely death this past summer from an undisclosed illness.
The two met and became friends when Wilson was still directing his previous company, the hip-hop dance troupe Oasis. “Then, as years passed, he felt as though he wanted to do something else. Something with a little bit more meaning, a little bit more talking to us as Black men and as Black gay men,” Pugh recalls.
“Of course, with Oasis, he had a safe space, but with Black Leaves, he wanted not only a safe space for Black men who are gay, or however you identify, or whoever you love, but he also wanted to talk about the issues [confronting] Black men, whether that be racism, systematically, and dealing with how we as Black male dancers, sometimes we’re not in the front. We’re always a prop or holding up the girl or something.”
Wilson wanted to shine a light not only on racial issues, but specifically, on, as Pugh notes, “same gender-loving topics that a lot of dance companies don’t like to talk about.”
The company’s upcoming ballet Requiem of a Dream II, billed as a “journey through the intimate stories of those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS” certainly continues the mission. Premiering with a free-admission performance on World AIDS Day, the show is one of two programs Black Leaves will present in December at Atlas Performing Arts Center.
The company will also dance A Chocolate City Nutcracker, a modern re-staging of the classic, following a young, gay man searching for his Prince at an HBCU holiday party. Whereas the holiday ballet seems designed to amuse and aims to celebrate family, Requiem‘s combination of singing, dancing, and spoken word offers a more serious tone of fellowship.
“Requiem of a Dream II is us shining a light on World AIDS Day and how this has affected our community,” says Pugh. “We’ve been interviewing different patients who either have HIV, or have been in a situation where they’ve had to deal with it. And from the interviews, we’ve pulled people not only that are gay Black males, but Black women and heterosexual men who have been in out of jail. HIV/AIDS has no set person.”
The ballet will illuminate the experiences of different ages and backgrounds, Pugh says, “just to show it has no set face. It sucks that society puts that like, ‘Oh, gay people equals HIV/AIDS,’ when it’s not that at all.” Requiem also will be about “just having a moment to reflect in remembrance of those we’ve lost to it.”
Reflecting on the company’s loss of its founder, Pugh admits that while he’s excited to present Requiem of a Dream II, he knows it will be tough.
“This will be our first show without Steven,” he notes sadly.
“[For] his last contribution, he wrote out Requiem, what he wanted. He just wasn’t able to choreograph or set anything yet. But it’s like he gave me the blueprint, and when I found it… I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ So that was just a whole slew of emotions.” Pugh soon discovered that in addition to that, Wilson had laid out other important plans for Black Leaves.
“Even him helping complete some of these grants, before he went into the hospital, and us getting those grants. I remember I was at work, and our president had called me, and literally within like an hour we found out we got three grants, and he and I were just crying on the phone, because I was like, ‘Even when he’s not here? He’s still helping and has things laid out for us.'”
Requiem of a Dream II is Dec. 1 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Admission is free, but reservations are required. To RSVP, visit www.atlasarts.org. For this event, Washington Health Institute will provide FREE HIV Testing and STI Screening before the show, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
A Chocolate City Nutcracker is Dec. 9 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $25. Visit www.atlasarts.org.
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