In what place in America could it be more necessary to express the black and brown perspective than right here in our organic-kale-kombucha-Subaru-loving, second-generation hippie town of Portland, also known as the city with the fifth highest percentage of white residents in America’s top 40 metropolitan areas?
When Oluyinka Akinjiola relocated back to Portland from Rochester, New York, the artistic director of Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater joined the 6.3% of Portland residents who identify as Black or African-American, according to the World Population Review. “At the time I did not see dance in Portland that reflected an experience I shared, or even people that looked like me on stage,” Akinjiola remarked in an email exchange. “My only option was to create a path for myself as a choreographer and performer.”
And create her own path she did. After securing two platforms (Subashini Ganesan’s New Expressive Works Residency Program and Linda Austin’s Alembic Co-Production series) in Portland to present her vision of creating space for people of color within the arts community,
she created Rejoice! Diaspora Dance Theater—one of the city’s very few predominantly black contemporary dance companies. Diversity in the company has always been a priority Akinjiola emphasizes through casting and choreography. To her, being in a creative environment with other people of color is vital to raising the awareness of the general population.
Over the weekend the company presented new works by Akinjiola, Michael Galen, and Jamie Minkus at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in a three-show run. The evening’s program, entitled UPRISE, featured work inspired by the despair that followed President Trump’s election, and, consequently the need for a collective uprising. The roots of UPRISE come from Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by American political activist and author Angela Davis, published in 2016. For Akinjiola, the book’s most important message was the need to bring diverse groups of people together: “That speaks to my soul being that my goal for Rejoice! is to remain a diverse company and represent the histories and perspectives of black and brown communities within the Americas.”
Part of this came through the casting, which included black, brown and white dancers, some of whom are performing for the first time with Rejoice! as part of the Community Ensemble, the company’s way of involving community members looking for professional dance experience.
Some parts of the performance hit the target more precisely than others. The choreography was rooted strongly in African Diaspora (Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban, House, Bboying, Capoeira, etc.), a style created by black and brown communities in response to social injustice and oppression (slavery, segregation, income and housing inequality). “The embodiment of these experiences is already present in these dance forms. We took those dance techniques and placed them with in our present realities,” explained Akinjiola.
The six dances on the program were separated by guest artist and songwriter Amenta Abioto’s musical remixes accompanied by visual projections that looked like the most fantastical rainbow screensaver that I can imagine. Though the interludes were stimulating and fun, the West African beats that Abioto sprinkled throughout the mix seemed to get lost inside the rave-like electronic dance music and visual presentation.
Nevertheless, Rejoice!’s dancing refocused the program with each piece. Akinjiola’s hopeful and joyous works included Xica, which let the dancers ride out the melodies of Afro-Brazilian musician Jorge Ben’s Xica da Silva through their hips as their stomping feet amplified the beats of the drum. Michael Galen’s Light of Hope explored the journey from oppression to awareness, community, and ultimately, resistance by combining such styles as Bboying, Pal, KRUMP, and Stepping in a fashion that highlighted the roots of “resilience, confrontation, trauma release, and community strengthening,” according to the program notes. Galen’s choreography was strong, and his duet with company dancer Decimus Yarborough proved to be one of the high points of the concert.
Jamie Minkus’s To Protect raised the stakes for the second half of the show, addressing the reality of police brutality and the proliferation of hate crimes. The audio featured an excerpt from Nicholas Kristof’s “On a Portland Train: The Battlefield of American Values,” which Kristof, who grew up in Yamhill, Oregon, wrote after the anti-Muslim hate crime on a Portland MAX train last spring that ended in the death of a brave Reed College graduate.
The tone of the movement stayed upbeat and energetic, refusing to succumb to the sadness of the event, according to the program. This contrast allowed Rejoice!’s program to remain consistent—the movement stayed hopeful and lively while the music and recordings told the other half of the story.
Ending on a strong note, the group danced an homage to those in the black community who have died in encounters with law enforcement and racial violence. Paired fittingly with Janelle Monae’s 2015 protest song “Hell You Talmbout,” the dance riled the audience into saying the names of those slain (Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, etc.) in a powerful finale that left no question as to the desire for justice within the local and national community.
Bold companies like Rejoice! and strong leaders like Akinjiola that are needed to bring the perspective of people of color to the contemporary stage. Just as relentlessly as the dancers kept up with the ongoing beat of the drums they moved to, the company relentlessly works toward representing the world of those marginalized and oppressed.
“What is political about dance is the physical presence of bodies on stage,” Akinjiola said. “When I and my company are on stage people notice race. But why was race not questioned when people only saw white companies on stage? It’s time for people to ask these questions and decide what kind of world they want to see and live in, whose perspectives have not been heard yet, who have been historically kept from being seen and supported. Continuing the work of Rejoice! is creating change in Portland.”