When Jeraldyne Blunden’s mother realized that her daughter was a talented dancer, she and a group of other African-American women approached Dayton Ballet’s founders, Josephine and Hermene Schwarz, to ask if they would be willing to train young black dancers. It was the 1940s, a time of segregation.
“The Schwarz sisters knew that African-American girls couldn’t be integrated into their school,” says Blunden’s granddaughter, Debbie Blunden-Diggs. “They could have said ‘no,’ but instead they offered to teach the girls in a satellite location. I think my mother would be humbly grateful to Miss Jo and Miss Hermene for saying ‘yes.’”
Thanks to that early and excellent training and Miss Jo’s mentoring and support, Blunden went on to study with dance greats Martha Graham, Jose Limon, George Balanchine and James Truitte. At 19, she became director of the Linden Community Center and later established Jeraldyne’s School of Dance. In 1968, her school evolved into the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. “She had a group of talented young women who were ready to show off their training through performances,” says Blunden-Diggs.
As the oldest modern dance company in Ohio, DCDC is marking its Golden Anniversary year, which will culminate in a special evening on Saturday, May 4. A 50th anniversary concert, featuring the DCDC dancers and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, will be held in the Schuster Center in downtown Dayton. Following the performance, a 50th anniversary gala, “Solstice,” will feature dinner, dancing and entertainment at the Kettering Tower, now Stratacache Tower.
ABOUT THE EVENT
A world premier, choreographed by former DCDC artistic director Kevin Ward, will kick off the May 4 concert. The work, entitled “And Each Day You Mean One More,” is set to new music by composer Derrick Spivey Jr. and will be performed by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra under the leadership of artistic director and conductor Neal Gittleman.
Inspired by Marge Piercy’s poem “The Low Road,” the new piece addresses the challenges faced by a lone actor for societal good and the ways in which like-minded individuals can become a force for change and resist destructive forces. Ward says he was inspired by many lone actors — Fanny Lou Hamer, David Hogg, Fred Rogers, James Baldwin, Malala, Claudette Colvin — as well as many nameless actors such as the American inmates who, in 2018, staged a massive strike against systematic prison abuse. Although it resulted in solitary confinement, their efforts inspired millions to follow suit.
DCDC will also perform “Children of the Passage, ” a signature work from its own history co-created for the Dayton company by world-renowned choreographer Ronald K. Brown and Tony-nominated choreographer Donald McKayle, who passed away a year ago. The work follows a party of decadent lost souls haunted and later rescued by spirits that reconnect them to their ancient and ancestral character.
The third piece on the program is “American Mo” created by choreographer and DCDC associate artistic director Crystal Michelle and set to Duke Ellington’s “Three Black Kings,” composed in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. DCDC has performed this innovative piece in New York City, Kazakhstan and The Bolshoi in Moscow.
A STORIED PAST
By the time Debbie Blunden was 8 years old and ready for dance lessons, times had changed and her mother was able to enroll her at the Dayton Ballet school. “I think she felt it was better not to teach her own child,” says Blunden-Diggs, who was named DCDC’s artistic director in 2007. “But I was one of very few black people in those classes.”
She’s understandably proud of her mother’s legacy. Among the numerous awards Blunden received in her lifetime was the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship Award in 1994. The company holds the world’s largest archive of classic African-American dance works and one of the largest of any kind among contemporary dance companies worldwide. Noteworthy choreographers who’ve worked with DCDC include Alvin Ailey, Talley Beatty, Donald Byrd, Bill T. Jones, Kiesha Lalama, Jose Limon, Donald McKayle, Ray Mercer, Bebe Miller and Doug Varone.
“When I think of DCDC, I immediately feel a warming sensation in my heart,” says Lalama, a choreographer for film, television and theater. “DCDC is composed of artists who dance from the inside out and from the depths of their soul, bringing deep meaning to their performance and provoking genuine emotions from their audiences. DCDC is a special orchestration of artists that understand the human condition and connection of the mind, body and soul.”
One of her favorite memories of DCDC, Lalama says, was watching the world premiere of SHED, a dance she created for the Dayton company. “In the middle of the third section, the audience began to clap and chant for the dancers, almost as if to rally and cheer them on toward a phenomenal finish,” she recalls. “The audience jumped to their feet at the end of the final movement before the lights came back up for the bow. To witness the dancers’ ability to reach, move, and wake the audience with such profound spirit was one of the greatest live performances I have ever witnessed.”
Master choreographer Donald Byrd, who received a Tony nomination for his Broadway work on “The Color Purple,” has set several works on DCDC. He says the company has been — and continues to be — an important supporter, nurturer and developer of world-class contemporary dancers and, most significantly, a place of opportunity for African-American choreographers. “My entrance into the professional choreographic world was a door opened by Jeraldyne Blunden and DCDC. While my first major choreographic opportunity was given to me by Alvin Ailey, it was Jeraldyne Blunden that made sure that there were other opportunities that followed.”
Byrd created his first work for DCDC, “Dark Joy,” in the late 1980s and says it was one of the highlights of his career. “The entire experience was eye-opening,” Byrd says. “The organization — and especially the environment for creativity — was mind-boggling. Not since my time at CalArts had I been in an environment where the point was to make the best work you could without impediments. Everything that was important, the best and most imaginative and committed dancers and a supportive emotional and creative “space” was made available to me. I will never forget that time and the remarkable dancers that worked with me during my creative residency. Jeraldyne was a genius who knew what was needed for dance to happen.”
Blunden-Diggs says her company, rooted in the African-American experience, is open to any dancer who has reached the caliber of dance DCDC requires.
“Dance is magical,” she believes. “Dancers are incredible human beings who can open themselves up and convey the human spirit by what they’re doing on stage. They are some of the most incredible athletes on the planet. Some people think we can decide on Monday to do a performance on Friday. But if they spend one week in our studio and watch our dancers work from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., they’ ll change their minds!”
Her mother, she says, planted some good seeds before her untimely death at age 58. “I would never have imagined when I was 12 and first started dancing for DCDC that this is where my journey would take me,” Blunden-Diggs admits. “This 50th anniversary does not mark the end of our journey. There is much more to do!”
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