Sitting down for a chat with Maurine Knighton, the executive producer and president of 651 ARTS, provides both pleasure and an education in the history of dance. Ms. Knighton’s comfortable office is located in the BAM Harvey Lichtenstein Theater on Fulton Street in Fort Greene. Relaxed, polished and affable. Knighton exemplified much of the superlative quality, content and style that 651 has been providing to Brooklyn residents for well over a decade. Knighton arrived here in the late 1980s from Meridian, Mississippi, by way of the Twin Cities where she was the managing director of the Penumbra Theatre.
651 Arts, Knighton explains, originated in order “to serve a community that really was not being served.” In 1988, she recalls, “the community looked very different and the majority of the people who lived around this area were people of African descent—or certainly people of color. Yet there was nothing that was culturally resonant for them in terms of high quality artistic work on the concert stage. So 651 was begun specifically to fill that void.” The neighborhood’s demographics may be changing, but its tastes are not. Says Knighton, “What we’ve witnessed is that the people who live here are still interested in a variety of high quality artistic experiences and they don’t want to have just one choice.”
The roster of performers who have graced the stage and crossed Ms. Knighton’s path consists of an impressive who’s who of contemporary dance, spoken word, and dramatic theatre. Now in its third season, “Black Dance: Tradition and Transformation” is dedicated exclusively to celebrating, nurturing and presenting the expressions of dancemakers of African descent from around the globe. Past performances included choreographers Salia Sanou and Seydou Boro’s Taagala, a dreamy juxtaposition of the seemingly non-related lives of the jet-set artist and the sub-Saharan wanderers of Burkina Faso; choreographer Ronald K. Brown/Evidence’s High Life, a meditation on the impact of immigration on the African Americans who left West Africa for the big city; and last year’s Bessie Award winner Bebe Miller’s seductive comment on the lingering of memory, Verge.
Spike Lee, Anna Deavere Smith, Terry McMillan, Betty Carter and Max Roach are among the other talents who have found platforms in which to showcase their work. “When Randy Weston recorded Uhuru Afrika in 1960,” notes Knighton, “its Pan-Africanist theme made it controversial.” However, “when it was performed here several years ago, it had never before been performed live in its entirety. The show was sold out. People got out of their seats and onto the stage and started dancing with Randy and the other musicians! Music, theatre, and dance is a way for people to really connect and be validated—it’s very much the communal, interactive experience.”
Puremovement, a dance group led by Rennie Harris, a colleague of Ms. Knighton’s, will present Harris’s most recent work Rome & Jewels, a hip hop version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in May of this year. It features b-boys and girls popping, as well as spinning, rap, projected visuals, a three-piece DJ orchestra and naturally, Elizabethan verse loosened up for the street. Mr. Harris is clearly more than just a choreographer. He is a storyteller and it would seem that with 651 he has found a perfect renaissance for his work.
The fact that this performance will be featured at The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is testament to 651’s reach and diverse scope, but 651 and BAM are not one and the same. “BAM is a venerable institution—there’s a reason why they are well respected and they are certainly a force to be reckoned with,” Ms. Knighton states. “BAM is extremely important in this country and in this community so having an association with them automatically rubs off on you in some way. People assume that if you’re affiliated with BAM, then what you’re doing must be worthwhile. Having access to this space means that not only will the arts which we present be of the highest quality but the production values will support that art in the best possible way.”
But the behemoth that is BAM can also be absorbing. One wonders whether or not the controversial and edgy works that 651 presents will fare well with the average BAM audience. Many BAM donors were also quite upset when they learned that Mark Morris would helm BAM’s new massive dance theater, at the expense of so many other talented choreographers. 651, though, believes that you have to realize that people are sophisticated and that excellence will shine through regardless of who is presenting it or where. “First,” Maurine asserts, “You have to correct a misconception that you’re part of BAM. Then you start with your clean slate and then you can make your case for support. That’s a cultivation of effort that makes a number of years to perfect.”
Most important to note about 651 are the different tiers of its involvement in the art and cultural communities both in Brooklyn and abroad. 651 is a solid destination of its own for people of color and others who dream of seeing their artistic vision realized. Africa Exchange brings African artists to the US to collaborate with their American counterparts. The Neighborhood Arts Network (NAN) links 651 with artists and organizations like El Puente de Williamsburg, the Ifetayo Cultural Arts Facility in Flatbush, and the Medgar Evers Community College in Crown Heights. Several years ago, Ms. Knighton defined the direction of her charge: “We want people to realize that 651 ARTS is here as a resource, that we are here as their organization and that we are doing some very one-of-a-kind work which has the potential to have a very positive and lasting impact on arts and culture in this community and beyond.” By all accounts she is realizing that goal.
On June 22nd, 651 Arts, in conjunction with Arts at St. Ann’s, is presenting Rivers, a musical and poetic birthday party for Langston Hughes, hosted by Sekou Sundiata, with invited guests Amiri Baraka, Tracie Morris, Rha Goddess, and others. For more info, contact 651 Arts.