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Chris Walker Calls for Communal Engagement in Dance with 2015 Philip Sherlock Lecture

Chris Walker delivered an embodied 2015 Philip Sherlock Lecture

Dancer and choreographer Chris Walker delivered an engaging and embodied lecture on dance, culture, criticism and identity as the 2015 Philip Sherlock Lecture, dubbed ‘Contemporizing in Reverse: Folk Origins, Contemporary Aesthetics and Dancing in the 21st century. 

Walker is an Associate Professor of Dance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he is also the Artistic Director of the First Wave Hip-Hop Theater Ensemble. Walker is also the co-founder and artistic director of NuMoRune Collective and a senior choreographer with the National Dance Theatre Company (NDTC).

Walker’s presentation was  delightfully light-footed as he danced away from his prepared script. It was however, also a cogent presentation which to benefit from the improvisation which made his presentation more dynamic. 

Walker’s initial move away from his speech was inspired by Dr. Brian Heap’s introductory remarks, which spoke about the need to support young artists so they can achieve their potential. 

dancer and choreographer Chris Walker“Tonight’s guest speaker is a very good example of a Jamaican artist who has left our shores and gone to another university and given the kind of support that an artist needs to flourish,” Heap had said. “The fact is a lot of artists in Jamaica are not given the tools they need to flourish,” he continued.

Heap explained however, despite the insufficient support for the arts, Walker had received much of his initial succour at home. 

Walker therefore used this as the launch pad for his talk, grounding his presentation in the support he found at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, including guidance and encouragement from friends, critique and engagement from teachers and  receiving a scholarship through Professor Rex Nettleford.

“At the time of my accepting that scholarship a sense of responsibility over took me. This giant of a man believed in me and wanted me to succeed,” Walker said. 

Walker’s talk had at a its centre a homage to the teachers who helped to shape and guide him. He spoke about Dr. L’Antoinette Stines, Barbara Requa, and Dr. Nicholeen DeGrasse-Johnson. He also spoke of his contemporaries in teaching and choreography, often mentioning Oneil Pryce and Neila Ebanks. 

Walker also delved into his choreographic process, which he described as a process of “centering”, echoing ‘inward stretch, outward reach’ concept. 

“How you see yourself in the world view directly impacts on performativity,” Walker said. “Often our work is critiqued from a lens that is different from where we are coming from,” he said.

However, for Walker, the challenge isn’t merely that we are viewed through lenses that do not necessarily understand or engage with the space from which our stories are told, but rather that we do not sufficiently engage with our own dance.

“I had to go to foreign to read and study and understand what my contemporaries were doing and go ‘rahtid’,” Walker confessed.

He argued that recent Jamaican dance history features inventive and important developments and initiatives in dance. However, it was a process of working in ‘silos of creativity’, that is without communal, critical engagement. Walker lamented that those foreign to the Caribbean were engaging with Caribbean culture in refreshing and revolutionary ways in which we often were not, as we do not allow ourselves the space and scope to develop critical engagement. 

Walker therefore urged that 21st century dance choreography required communal engagement, with what he described as his rhizomatic approach. It was also interesting that the rhizome, Walker chose to undergird his metaphor was the ginger, such an important spice and medicine in Caribbean culture.

The link was however not an accidental. Walker remarked that dance provided an important tool for telling our stories. 

“Who are our griots if we are not?” he asked rhetorically. “We’re at a place where we are excavating what is here.” 

"It is not mine. It can't be mine," he said of his methodology. "It is ours." 

The appreciative applause that greeted the end of his presentation underscored that much of what he had said, echoed with those present. 

The 2015 Philip Sherlock Lecture was held at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts on Wednesday, February 25, 2015.