From Street to Stage

Works & Process at the Guggenheim’s new festival brings recognition to underground dance forms

| 18 Dec 2022 | 07:26

The Guggenheim is taking a step away from traditional art forms to feature Works & Process, a performing arts organization that champions underground dance and performance styles underrecognized in the world of high art. The Underground Uptown Dance Festival features six days of performances, from January 12-17, highlighting street and social dance along with music forms from the past several decades.

“We have five world champion beat boxers,” says Duke Dang, explaining what he is most excited for. “We’re trying to platform beatboxing as a virtuosic form of music making, rather than a party trick or novelty.” Dang is executive director at Works & Process, a 501c3 that works with the Guggenheim and Lincoln Center and focuses on live performances and their contribution to the art world.

Dang, who’s been at his position for 19 years, and his team started the process of creating the Underground Uptown Dance Party back in 2017. “We surveyed the performing arts in particularly as a dance concert landscape, and we realized that social dance was severely lacking in representation on concert dance stages,” he says.

One of the projects that eventually became the opening event of the festival is UNDERSCORED (listed as Ephrat Asherie Dance and Music From The Sole on the Guggenheim website) which Works & Process commissioned in 2018. UNDERSCORED showcases dance forms that have their foundations in clubs, particularly in the 70s.

Rich History of Clubbing

Dang described the head of Ephrat Asherie Dance, Ephrat Asherie as being “a club-head through and through. She loves dance house music.” He goes on to describe the rich history of clubbing in New York particularly in the 70s, mentioning clubs like Paradise Garage which received less recognition than Studio 54 because they were less commercialized and catered towards people of color. “Many of the elders that created this culture are still alive and with us,” says Dang. “The traditions that they started have moved from generation to generation.”

UNDERSCORED held its first public showing in 2020, then quickly had to shut down due to the pandemic. Unlike other programs that shut down entirely, Works & Process instead offered their artists virtual residencies. When that proved less successful than hoped, they offered bubble residencies, which allowed artists to gather in a shared space for two weeks living, eating and working together.

Asherie and UNDERSCORED were one of eight projects being supported at the time, all of which focused on street and social dance. Dang likes to draw a parallel between artists today being stuck together in a home, as they were in the bubble residency, and the origins of club dancing starting at house parties: “It’s literally a project that was inspired by music and dance, which started actually in houses. And the creative team that was coming together to create this work, they were living in houses together.”

In September 2020 live performances were not back yet, but Works & Process collaborated with the Lincoln Center to film a version of UNDERSCORED that can be shown as a finished piece. “We’re not in the business of making films,” says Dang, somewhat contradictorily. “When you make a film, the product is the product. Whereas, for performing artists, the creative process is a continuum. Even after a premiere, a performance changes.” And so UNDERSCORED continued to grow and change when they were offered another bubble residency in 2021.

A 360 Degree View

At that time in person performances were allowed to reemerge, but not without restrictions. The show was presented in the rotunda of the Guggenheim in spring 2021, but only 50 audience members could attend, and the performance had to be under 30 minutes. Unlike previous versions of the performance, they also needed to make it work for a 360 degree view.

The show has gone through several different iterations. Asherie once made a 15 minute version that was performed in the Hudson Valley in summer 2020. Fall 2022 was the first time UNDERSCORED was “properly” produced in a theater.

In 2022 Asherie and her company were again offered a residency. The latest version of UNDERSCORED incorporates not only club dancing, but music and storytelling. The storytellers range from 27 to 79 in age, and one of the elders of the group is 79-year-old Michele Saunders, who spent the 70s in the underground clubs New York.

“She was at Paradise Garage every single weekend for the entire history of the club,” says Dang. “Michelle still has the T-shirt that she wore when Paradise Garage closed, she never washed it. She was walking around Paradise Garage the last day that it was open, taking gels from the lights and sweeping up the dust and glitter on the floor. Michelle says ‘Paradise garage – the music – it was my church.’”

In supporting an ever-changing art process, Dang wants to alter the way dance and performance pieces are produced. “For most dances the intention is we’re gonna create it for a stage, it’s always going to be seen on the stage and a story,” says Dang. “Whereas the whole cohort of works that are in this Underground Uptown Dance Festival all come from street and social dance traditions that didn’t start off on a proscenium stage to begin with.”

Dang says proscenium stages distance artists and audience, and he wants to close that gap. “It’s about ... the innate qualities of street and social dance that are more exciting and get people to get off the couch,” he says.

In curating the six performances for the Underground Uptown Dance Festival, Dang’s goal is not to create a finished product, but a process in which audiences can collaborate in. “As we emerge from the pandemic we are going to have a conversation about how most consumers of the performing arts and funders of the performing arts tend to be very product oriented,” says Dang. “Works & Process stands for supporting creative process, supporting artists from studio to stage, providing them with living wage, providing them with devoted studio time as we emerge from the pandemic.”

“Works that are in this Underground Uptown Dance Festival all come from street and social dance traditions that didn’t start off on a proscenium stage.” Duke Dang, executive director of Works & Process