Bringing red clay to life
“When you realize that there are inequalities and that there aren’t as many performance or presentation opportunities for some artists, you have to start creating those spaces for yourself,” the director said. artistic founder and CEO of Red Clay Dance Company Vershawn Sanders-Ward in 2019. Now Red Clay, a company with a mission to teach and perform African Diaspora dances to advance cultural and socio- economy, opened his own home in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood on a busy thoroughfare just steps from 63rd Street Green Line.
Autonomy in a place of gathering and creation has always been at the heart of Red Clay’s vision. Sanders-Ward first met Senegalese choreographer Germaine Acogny during her undergraduate studies at Columbia College. After earning an MFA in dance from NYU, Sanders-Ward continued his studies for three months at Acogny School in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal. Her experiences at the International Center for Traditional and Contemporary African Dances, otherwise known as École des Sables, not only enlightened her choreographic voice, but strengthened her determination to build a company, and with it, a thriving community.
” Not only [Acogny] have an amazing business that has gone around the world, but her school was a community hub, ”she says. “Artists could come and learn, and that brought international artists to this little fishing village that they would probably never come to if it wasn’t for his construction of this incredible complex. It was the first moment I realized that dance could be an economic driver for the community. The arts could inject opportunity, dollars and tourism into a very small neighborhood and make it visible to the world. Now, because of his school, everyone knows Toubab Dialaw. It’s not in Dakar, it’s not in the big city, it’s in the small fishing village where his father grew up. Witnessing the impact of the School of the Sands also reinforced Sanders-Ward’s desire to return to his hometown to develop his art. “The more art you have around you, the richer your community. [Toubab Dialaw] was able to truly see their richness and value. And vice versa, the people who came there could see the value of the people there.
Over the past decade, Red Clay has established itself on the south side of Chicago, first in partnership with the Gary Comer Youth Center on the 7200 block of South Ingleside, then with the Chicago Park District in Fuller Park, at a block of 47e Red line street station. During the company’s five-year tenure as Fuller Park’s artistic partner, Red Clay has gradually transformed the space given to it into a viable home for dance by investing in its infrastructure.
“The room we used was a carpentry shop before we arrived, with a floor that scratched our knees,” Sanders-Ward recalls. A performance at the DuSable Museum Roundhouse – formerly a stable (“It was literally a stable. It was cement. Dirty cement.”) – prompted the company to act. In 2016, dancer and educator Onye Ozuzu launched Project Tool, a program that allows dancers to hand build their own wooden floors. Sanders-Ward contacted the Sweet Water Foundation, which now manages the floors, to help Red Clay build floors and seats for the joinery in Roundhouse and Fuller Park.
“Thanks to the Onye project, Sweet Water was able to make the floors, and we left it behind,” she says. “When we moved here, we left the floor and the marley so that if other dancers come after us, it’s now a dance space. Don’t turn it around! We also installed mirrors. So over five years, we made an investment. The dance space is so limited, especially south of Cermak. Just knowing that there is another place people can go if they need a rehearsal space, it feels good. It was really nice to leave the park in a better place than it was when we got there.
But the pandemic closure and the closure of park buildings, with no guaranteed reopening date, has prompted Red Clay to seek greater independence. “The shutdown was in March and we thought we were just going to wait,” Sanders-Ward said. “Summer has passed and we were approaching fall, and it just didn’t look promising. We found this space in September 2020. ” Empty since construction was completed in 2019, the storefront space now houses two studios, one in marley, the other in hardwood, and both equipped for live streaming, as well as a room conference room, desk and storage space for Red Clay staff.
Its intentions for how the space will be developed reflect a commitment to partnership and mutual growth. “I want it to be a community hub, a Sand School here in Chicago, a place where artists from all over the world want to come and share their gifts, in addition to being a place for southern artists to have a port of. ‘attached. Explains Sanders-Ward. “We’re still working on what that would look like in terms of programming. I am not interested in reproducing other models of residence or rental, I want a real relationship with the artists who use this space. What is their process? When do you need space?
“I discovered that before Red Clay had a space, residency requests never matched when I had a real idea. Like, I don’t have any ideas at the moment, but the application is due! But when I got the idea, I missed all the deadlines. It has always marked me. So why isn’t there some kind of flexible thing, where artists can access the space according to their needs? And how can we find ways to support this space that is not on the backs of the artists? I don’t need to pay my rent by charging you rent. It’s so transactional – it goes against everything Red Clay stands for in our mission, vision and values. I don’t want it to be transactional. I’m trying to find a way to reciprocate this. I don’t have the answers. I ask artists, individual choreographers, what kind of arrangement with space would be beneficial to you? And what would you bring to this space? I would like to design a program that has room for individualism. Maybe that means we can’t support 8,500 artists, but we can fully support those who are here. ”
In the meantime, Red Clay has worked with another southern organization, Urban Growers Collective, to develop new work on land tenure practices and urban communities. “Urban Growers Collective is committed to teaching communities about food: food injustice, food disparities, how can I grow my own food for myself? Said Sanders-Ward. During a residency at Trillium Arts in Mars Hill, North Carolina, Sanders-Ward and his dancers began to explore themes of the culture of the land, the connection to the land, and how black bodies come together. connect to the work of the earth.
“We are deepening our research on land tenure practices and trying to translate them into more urban communities. Now is the time for us to go further and do something outside of the theater. For a project like this and the way we try to involve the community, we have to take our time. Nobody is rushing into the theater right now, so why not take our time? We need time to create. Before we had our own space, our timeline wasn’t really our timeline, it was someone else’s timeline that we had to fit into. So now we have time to figure out, what is our work flow? How long does it take us to imagine something and bring it to fruition? It feels good to be able to breathe in it. “