Dance Became My Voice

Dance  Became My Voice
Dance choreographer Tony Johnson sits alongside the Eno River. Still image from Dance Became My Voice.
To view the documentary, scroll to the bottom of the page.

This documentary started roughly ten years ago, when I first met Tony Johnson...

I was studying at Duke University doing whatever the heck 20-year-old boys do while "studying" at Duke (in my case: I drank a lot and read a lot), and one Saturday afternoon I found my way into a dance studio off East Campus. There was still daytime left, so sunlight came through some windows. A couple dozen or so chairs were spread out in the audience. As I remember it, the floor was a bit dusty, and three dancers (two black, one white) stood in front of a humble audience.

I sat in the audience quietly and read through the program. The title read, "Embodying Slavery Through Dance." The program briefly described that the dancers were meant to embody what it was like to be on an auction block before being sold.

I looked up at them and sat in silence waiting for the dance to start. Seconds stretched to minutes, and these dancers were staring just over our heads. I could hear their breathing. I could hear my own breathing. Minutes passed. Silence stretched around us. Five minutes. Seven minutes. Glancing at the people next to me, I felt the twinge of awkwardness that comes sometimes with experiencing strange art in public. Wild art. And minutes just kept passing by, the dancers unmoved, staring out above us. Breathing. Shuffling of chairs. A cough. Supposed slaves on auction blocks. Eight minutes. I went to pull out my phone, but put it away with a bit of shame. Ten minutes.

I felt like leaving. Fourteen minutes. Why was I there? This is not a dance. Fifteen minutes. Anger started inside me, but I consciously fought it. How did he expect us just to sit there? When is the dance going to start? Sixteen minutes... I looked up at the dancers. Who were they? Why did they do this? What are they trying to show us? I was feeling frustrated and I was feeling tired and uncomfortable (in fairness my 6'4" frame has always felt uncomfortable in chairs built for people much shorter). But it was not just frustration of feeling uncomfortable. What was that in their eyes? Did you see that glint in the dancers eyes? Seventeen minutes. Do you see the way they breathe? Do you feel the desperation they embody? Can you see their muscles? Can you see their jaws? Eighteen minutes. Can you feel the violence surrounding them? What far off world did they come from? How did they find themselves in this hell? How is it they ended up on the auction block? Nineteen minutes. Where will they go from here? What does the future have in store? How do they stand with such dignity? Who are these dancers? Slaves on an auction block. Twenty minutes.

After twenty minutes of absolute silence, some movement started. It was beautiful movement, and I was totally enthralled. I had been transformed in a way during those twenty minutes that I did not understand until I made this documentary with Tony.

After the performance, I asked Tony to grab a coffee, and we met a few days later. A friendship formed immediately.

There's a lot that can be said about our friendship, but I'll leave most of it out: what's useful for this post is to know a bit more about how the film came to be. I knew from the instant I met Tony that I wanted to capture some of the magic of who Tony is on camera. But, that's really not an easy task. His magic is in the silence he creates. His beauty is in his stillness. He is a truly magical human being, but you need to spend hours with him to begin to see it. His impact on those around him and on his community is truly powerful but it is also gentle. If you spend twenty minutes with Tony at a coffee shop, you'll start to get an idea, but if you spend a week with him, a picture forms: Tony lives for his community.

But, it's not just his personality that intrigued me. It is his aesthetic principles as a dance choreographer that also drew me in. He has such a clear vision for his work, such simplistic yet profound objectives. For him all of life is dance, and he is using dance to help bring people together to discuss important topics. Like racism. Or community engagement. Or beaver-themed ballet dancers (if you meet Tony, it's definitely worth asking about this one). But how he goes about doing that is very particular. He works with dancers on the angle of their arms, the way their legs move. He asks them how it feels when they move certain ways. He is always reflecting, reframing, and reimagining the way people move, the way he moves. Watching Tony work is fascinating because he is so interested in how the smallest of movements can change a person and an audience. And I wanted to show some of this with a documentary, with a piece of my own. To honor what he brings to his work.

So, over the course of five years, I filmed a scene here and there. I filmed countless interviews and spent time following Tony in his studio, working with dancers, and around Durham. I did not quite know how to portray Tony, but I patiently gathered footage, knowing that somehow we would find a way to make it all come together.

Then, in collaboration with Tony and the American Dance Festival, an idea arose: ADF was planning to honor Tony for all his amazing dance work in the community. And we all had this idea to create a work together: to create a night where there was a documentary and a dance. There would be no real break between the two, just a documentary into a dance. They were to be one and the same.

So, over the course of six months to a year, I edited the footage I had of Tony into a movie that had two goals: 1) to honor the magic of who Tony is and 2) to set up Tony's dance. I worked with the beautiful compositions of musician Michael Wall. Of course, my dear friend and co-producer Matt Brondoli helped make it all happen. We also worked with sound designer Jared Neal, colorist Alan Maynard, and associate producer Ashley Manigo. It was a great team, and we finished the movie just in time for the screening, which happened immediately following a wild thunderstorm on June 19th, 2023.

So... when you watch the movie, you have to imagine the night at Reynolds Theater on Duke's campus: a raging storm, a crowd of 500+ people, a movie, and a beautiful dance of Tony's. You have to imagine the silence that stretched out among the crowd as dancers moved in unison. After watching the movie on this site, I hope that you then also imagine Tony's dance. I hope that you imagine dancers on a stage, with Tony as a guide, moving in a way that touches a deep part of yourself that you did not know existed. After all, as Tony has taught me, all life is dance. And, we embody history and communities every time we wake up in the morning, stretch our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and whatever else needs stretching, and begin to move about our lives.

Here is the movie in full:

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