When you see an elegant, tall, black man in his 80s dancing in an ornate palace in Venice, Italy you understand there’s an unusual story unfolding on screen. Bob’s father was born a slave in rural Mississippi in 1858 and Bob grew up doing the back-breaking work of picking cotton in the segregated South. At a time when black dancers were commonly not accepted into companies with white dancers he received a scholarship for one of the world ́s leading ballet institutions – the School of American Ballet under the direction of the great George Balanchine. He was also the first black dancer in the legendary José Limon company and studied with and served as a muse for the mother of Modern Dance – Martha Graham.
At the age of only 28, Bob was one of the most promising dancers in New York City. But his career ended instantly the day he was pushed through a glass wall and the tendons of his leg were severed and his body sliced. Even Martha Graham couldn’t see a future for him in dance and suggested he find another passion. But dance was the thing he loved more than anything else and so for a long time he was lost in depression and addicted to pain medications.
After years of grueling physical therapy and the struggle to be drug free, he returned to the stage a new man. He wouldn’t listen to what others thought was possible or impossible. He wouldn’t be distracted by the racism around him. He wouldn’t let others determine what his life would become.
Bob sold everything he had, moved to Europe simply because he loved it, and used every penny he had to start his Afro Contemporary Dance Company and mount their first performance. He desegregated dance and challenged old ideas that white dancers couldn’t do “black movements“ and that black dancers couldn’t dance ballet because, as a noted critic of the time put it, “Blacks are unsuitable for the ballet since it’s wholly European outlook, history and technical theory are alien to them, culturally, temperamentally and anatomically”. Now it’s hard to imagine those words appeared in print in a reputable newspaper— but they did. That’s what Bob was up against even as late as the 1970’s as he worked to “dance himself.” Bob was gay and out of the closet at a time when that was rare. He made the choice to be public without fanfare or militancy–he just courageously and quietly claimed his pioneering place in the world as the man he was. He took on the pain of his time and transformed it.
The performances he and his dancers created had the impact of rock concerts. Audiences jumped up to shout their appreciation and stomp their feet in response. The work was a sensation and he spent the rest of his life sharing revolutionary dance experiences with audiences across Europe. He lived beyond boundaries. He encouraged everyone around him to discover themselves, live authentically and create freely. He began the richest part of his career in his 50 ́s and danced beautifully into his 80 ́s – aging with incredible vitality, power and grace.
How do you know who you really are? How do you express yourself once you know? Can you become a different person than who you seemed born to be? I DANCE MYSELF answers, yes.