A reporter writing a story on what history museums are doing to stay relevant in the current economic climate recently contacted me. Our discussion spoke directly to the vibrancy of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as a preeminent historical institution, but also having a wide array of educational and performing art programming that makes it more of a "hybrid" organization, if you will, in reflection of the living tapestry that is African American history and culture and its manifestations in the present.
"The Wright Museum ties black history to other cultural events, including recent performances by the Dance Theatre of Harlem, subject of a featured exhibit and the highlight of a September gala that raised more than $400,000 for the museum, spokesman Ted Canaday said.
'You can't just say, "We're a history museum'' and only push the historic aspect,' he said. 'You have to show people how the history impacts people right now, how it impacts the choices they make, and one of the best ways to do that is through the arts.'"
Little did I know this small, upstate New York newspaper’s story would be picked up by the Associated Press and end up in dozens of papers including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Nevertheless, my contention that history's relevance in the present can well be illustrated through the arts was borne out by two incidents this past weekend. The Wright Museum presented a follow-up performance (to their September 9 Gala appearance) by the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble at the nearby Detroit School of Arts, which quickly sold out all 750 available tickets. The performances were stunning, including excerpts from The Joplin Dances, a modern piece entitled Episode, and DTH's famed Return, set to the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin, which of course brought the house down. But it was the world premiere of the Christopher Huggins-choreographed In the Mirror of Her Mind, a meditation on a woman haunted by the men from her past, that absolutely floored me. Admittedly, I’ve never been much of a ballet enthusiast, but am now in awe of how Dance Theatre of Harlem has taken an art form codified in 17th century France and masterfully imbued it with a multicultural context while becoming one of the storied companies of our time. Having been exposed to its history through the exhibition, Dance Theatre of Harlem: 40 Years of Firsts, and the artistry and discipline so obvious in their performance, has opened my mind and heart to it. In other words, I've gained an appreciation for the art through its history.
So moved was I by In the Mirror of Her Mind that with some Internet sleuthing I was able to track down the haunting piece of music the ballet was choreographed to; that of contemporary classical composer Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3, Opus 36, 2nd Movement (excuse the pretension, but I was a music school geek), which is written around the words a teenage girl etched into the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in World War II. Listening to (and watching) this performance, filmed at the site of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, brought me to tears as I imagined the innocence lost and weight of human suffering that has wracked history since time immemorial. This was an instance of art transporting me to a particular moment in history, and that history brought harrowingly home through art. Furthermore, I felt its emotional resonance, something the arts can do with more immediacy than any other medium; so, an awareness of history through art.
History and the arts are inextricably intertwined, as are our collective stories and experiences as human beings, and to see them as separate is folly, and speaks to dichotomies that exist only in the mind. A divine piece of music, written by a Polish composer and inspired by the horrors of the Holocaust, then forms the basis of a modern ballet for a distinctly African American-inspired dance company, the subject matter of which is heart-wrenchingly poignant in its portrayal of an individual's recollection of love and loss. The arts, and the histories they explore and represent, have that crucial ability to transcend boundaries of race, gender, and even time, and in the same token, unite us in the universality of human experience. Truly, the richness of that experience is a deep and luxurious quilt whose threads cannot easily be separated.