Saturday, December 20, 2008

Center of Contemporary Art ( COCA)

I was invited to attend a fundraiser a few weeks ago at the Center of Contemporary Art, also known as COCA. It was a performance of dance featuring Antonio Douthat, a principal dancer for The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I, who have never been a dancer, am a great fan of the Ailey Company and try to catch them whenever they come to St. Louis so I immediately said yes. And what a great performance it was.

I knew that Douthat was a native St. Louisan and had started dancing at COCA as a teenager. He brought along some friends from Ailey to help him out. They performed some Ailey and some works of their own choreography.

Douthat is a magnificant dancer and you can tell that he comes out of the Ailey tradition. Ailey has said that he likes the line and technical range that classical ballet brings to a dancer's body but he wants to also bring the expressiveness that modern dance brings. The word that always comes to my mind when you mention Ailey is ... strength. Some choreographers will show languid pieces where all the effort is hidden. Not Ailey. Every move is pushed to the limit and ... strong. I've never seen a review of an Ailey work that didn't use the word strong.

And the works that Douthat and his friends brought epitomized strength. For instance, in the work one of them choreographed for the young dancers (which they learned and performed in one week) there were a lot of moves that you might find in a typical yoga class - moves that require strength but that when done properly in class leave the impression of simplicity. Under Douthat's direction the impression is one of strong, STRONG, (but fluid) muscles.

As I said, this was a fundraiser and Douthat was there to give back to a community that made him what he is today - as he fully admits if there had been no COCA he would not be a dancer. Growing up in north St. Louis poverty, for a time he lived at Hope House, a transitional facility for homeless families to offer them support, new skills and a place to live while they try to turn their lives around.

COCA put together a short film in which Douthat explains how he came to dance and to COCA. As Douthat tells it, he and his friends were roaming the streets of the near north side one day when they heard rhythms coming from the basement of a building. Looking into the building they saw a dance class. The teacher allowed them to stand in the back and watch and, although his friends weren't interested, Douthat was. Seeing him move, the teacher told him he could come back, which he did. This was a class for adults, so eventually she called COCA and told them they should see the young man dance. They arranged for him to come attend a class and, as he says, after the class the teacher took him down the hall to the executive director and said "this boy needs a scholarship."

They provided everything for him. Not just lessons, but dance clothes including shoes. And transportation. And tutoring if he needed it. As he said, families have a lot to worry about just putting food on the table and a roof over their head. Dance comes out of what is left over and in his family there was nothing left over. But COCA saw to everything. Eventually he was also able to get into the St. Louis Public School Magnet school for the arts which saw to the rest of his education.

The thing is - this was not an aberration for COCA. This is what they do. If a family can afford to pay then they pay, but COCA also is looking for talented students who could not walk through the door with a check. Through their urban outreach program they reach out to the community, offering programs free of charge.
Since 1993, the Urban Arts Program has made arts education , performance, and hands on experience available to more than 50,000 children who would not otherwise have access to such programs. The philosophy of this program embodies a developmental approach to arts education which considers the physical, emotional, and artistic interests, needs and capabilities of each student. All programming is provided at no cost to the participants, and is sustained entirely by contributions from the local community and national funders.

Through the urban outreach they keep their eyes out for talented students and then offer them the opportunity to come to the COCA facility to take master classes, providing what is needed: tuition, clothing, transportation, tutoring and mentoring.

And it all takes money. Usually the arts are the first programs cut when budgets get tight. COCA fills that gap. COCA also helps talented kids from all schools find classes that could prepare them for a career in the arts. After the performance, they asked us to raise our hands if we were willing to provide $25 to help buy a pair of shoes for a dancer. Lots of hands went up. I suspect some of those hands will contribute more, maybe even the $500 that it takes to provide 1 week of transportation to/from COCA for 25 students.

I wish the film that was shown at the fundraiser was available on youtube. But it isn't. Instead here is a film about Antonio Douthat done about a year ago by the local public television station.

There are a lot of organizations out there that help people achieve better lives. They all need funding. As you receive end of the year requests, consider them.