Faison, George 1946–
George Faison 1946–
Choreographer, dancer, producer, director
George Faison is a stirring example of an artist who takes from the sometimes ugly and hateful world around him and creates beauty. Whether choreographing a dance about slavery or drug abuse, or creating a tornado with dancers in The Wiz, Faison stayed true to himself and the result is a career three decades long and counting. “I’ve wanted to do something positive, but people have felt I was a black activist when I recognized my roots,” he told Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times in 1977. “I was interested in pop music. That turned some people off, but I found beauty in the ordinary and everyday,” he added. For Faison, dance is for everyone whether its based on primitive movement, classical movement, or jazz movement. Or in Faison’s case, all three. “All kinds and classes of people will embrace dance when they see it in a context that relates to their own experience,” he proclaimed to Maurice Peterson of Essence in 1975. “Dance is not just for the elite, it is universal,” he continued.
Born in 1946 in Washington D.C., Faison always had a passion for theater and dance and while he received an award for his work in a high school production, practicality led him to pursue the more conservative career of dentistry. While in the pre-dentistry program at Howard University, Faison also spent a great deal of time taking classes provided by the theater department. In his spare time he would also study dance with the Capitol Ballet and the American Light Opera Theater, where he was accepted after accompanying a friend to an audition. “I got a job and he didn’t,” Faison confessed to Dunning. “My whole career has been like that. Everything has been sort of plopped.” After six months, it was Faison who was plopped. “They said I could never be a dancer,” Faison reminisced to Peterson, referring to his ballet teachers, “and I was thrown out.”
Faison returned to the dentistry program but that changed once he saw a performance at Howard by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. “When the curtains opened, my life flowed out from the wings,” Faison is quoted as saying in Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey “I had never seen anything like that in my life, the energy, the bearing. I thought, That’s what I want to be,’” he continued. Within a week, Faison quit college and moved to New York to be a dancer.
Upon his arrival to New York Faison began to study at the School of American Ballet where he was taught by Arthur Mitchell. In addition, he attended classes taught by June Taylor, Claude Thompson, Dudley Williams, Charles Moore, James Truitte, and others and soon found himself on an ABC television special dancing with actress Lauren Bacall. “Oh, I was so young, so dumb, so enthusiastic,” he admitted to Dunning. “I think that’s what got me through,” he added. Only one year after he
At a Glance…
Born George William Faison, 1946 in Washington D.C. Education: Howard University, 1964-66.
Choreographer, dancer, director, producer; Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Co., dancer, 1966; principal dancer, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, 1967-70; founder, artistic dir., choreographer, dancer, George Faison Universal Dance Experience, 1971-75; founder, Fais One Productions. Choreographer for shows including, Nigger Nightmare, 1971-72; The Dolls, 1971; Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, 1972; Sheeba, 1972; Ti-jean and His Brothers (also asst dir.), 1972; Everyman and Roach, 1972; The Wiz, 1975; 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., 1976; Up On the Mountain (also dir.), 1980; The Moony Shapiro Songbook, 1981; Apollo, just Like Magic (also dir.), 1981; Rhinestone, 1982; Porgy and Bess, 1983; The Wiz, 1984, 1995 (also dir); Concert works include, The Gazelle, 1971; Slaves, 1971; Poppy, 1971; Suite Otis, 1971; The Cohureds, 1972; Black Angels, 1972; We Regret to Inform You, 1972; In the Sweet Now and Now, 1974; Reflections of a Lady, 1974; Tilt, 1975; Hobo Sapiens, 1976; Cafe America, 1992; Mad Pain, 1995; Idol Obsession, 1996. Dir., choreographer for stage shows for musical acts including, Stevie Wonder; Earth, Wind and Fire; Roberta Flack; Stephanie Mills; Dionne Warwick; Natalie Cole; Gladys Knight and the Pips; and others. Producer and choreographer of Bill Cosby Salutes Alvin Ailey, NBC-TV, 1989. Choreographer of films including, The Cotton Club (with others), 1984; The Josephine Baker Story, 1990. Founded American Performing Arts Collaborative (A-PAC), 1996.
Awards : Tony Award, Best Choreographer, 1975, for The Wiz; Drama Desk Award, Best Choreographer, 1975, for The Wiz; Tony Award Nomination, Best Choreographer, 1983, for Porgy and Bess; Emmy Award Nomination, 1990, for The Josephine Baker Story.
Addresses : Office —Fais One Productions, 109 W. 96th St., New York, NY, 10025.
saw the performance of the Ailey troupe that changed his life, Faison became a principal dancer with the company.
For three years Faison performed and grew with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater but he and Ailey, while sharing a passion for dance, were often at odds when it came to the execution of the movements, what the dances should mean, and how dancers and people should interact. “Alvin was intelligent, but he was naive in a certain way about how people really love each other, how people ultimately talk to each other,” Faison said in Revelations. “He learned it gradually over his life, and we had a real friendship toward the end, but there was still this coldness,” he continued. Another area of disagreement between the two was in the area of black culture. “Our problem was that Alvin had a lot of people around him who believed that if it’s black, whether choreography or music, it’s mediocre.... He seemed to have stopped believing that his culture possessed all the things that he was searching for in somebody else’s culture,” he expressed.
Faison left the Ailey troupe in 1970 with the belief that he could do things a different way but also with the appreciation of the travel and opportunities to meet different types of people that working with the Ailey company afforded him. “You come from basically a black world in Washington,” Faison confessed to John Gruen of WNCN-FM. “There wasn’t really that great an opportunity for mixing with a lot of different people because you know you had these little schools and those little schools and the city was really divided.... Not until I went to Africa did I realize that... how small I was, you know, in seeing the vastness of this country, so to carry around any sort of chips or anything is really out and trying to affect a change in this vastness is even more of a struggle so I got interested in doing things for other people,” he continued.
Upon leaving Ailey, Faison danced in the Broadway musical, Purlie, but that failed to stimulate him artistically. “There weren’t many other dance groups at the time,” he recalled to Peterson of Essence, ”so there was no place else to do concert dancing. I said to myself, ‘If nobody else wants to dance, I do.’ So, I got a group of friends together and we danced,” he added. Under the name the George Faison Dance Ensemble, Faison used $600 of his own money—he did not want to wait for a grant—to rent a hall, make costumes, publicize the event, and pay his dancers. The evening was a success and soon Faison would apply for and receive grants to form his own dance company, the George Faison Universal Dance Experience.
For his new dance company Faison was choreographer, artistic director, as well as occasional dancer, and he and the Universal Dance Experience almost immediately garnered rave reviews. “Association with Alvin Ailey must have paved the way for the superb craftsmanship Faison is showing so early,” Tom Borek wrote in Dance Magazine in 1971. “Intelligent, well-designed choreography, terrific dancers with technique to burn and stage know-how conspire to produce an uncommon touch of brilliance and sensitivity.” He added, “The George Faison Universal Dance Experience delivers the message. It tells the black story without pretense and discourse.” About his performance in Suite Otis, a ballet choreographed to the music of Otis Redding, Borek wrote, “Faison danced a solo that modulated an energizing force through movements, especially turns, having the impeccable balance and proportion of a mobile sculpture.”
For most of the early seventies Faison and his troupe toured and performed around the world and Faison became a celebrity in the world of modern dance. “His choreography is contemporary black dance at its most jubilant, most exciting and most promising,” Dance Magazine’s Zita D. Allen declared in 1974, adding, “Not only a story-teller, Faison is an all-around choreographic innovator as well.... Occasionally he goes off on tangents, but even then he’s never boring or unpleasant to watch.” Two years later in an article written to dispel the notion that “black dance” was an all encompassing term entitled, “Black Dance Doesn’t Exist,” Allen wrote, “You could say that Faison is experimenting with movement or that he is preoccupied with pretty costumes, or that he is extending the boundaries of contemporary dance in a way. Whatever, he is definitely an innovator.”
In 1974 Faison was hired for his highest profile assignment, to choreograph The Wiz, a big-budget Broadway musical based on The Wizard of Oz, but updated to take place in an urban ghetto. Upon its opening on Broadway, The Wiz received mixed reviews with Clive Barnes of the New York Times proclaiming, “the concept is very good in theory, but the practice is not made perfect,” adding that “a fairy tale, to work, has to have magic. We have to give ourselves up to it, to suspend our cynical disbeliefs and, to some extent, identify with the characters. To me, this proved impossible in The Wiz.” About Faison, Barnes hailed his “vibrant choreography [which] is almost invisibly meshed in with the general staging,” while Moira Hodgson of Dance Magazine labeled Faison’s choreography, “practically non-existent—classroom jazz—and a waste of good dancers.” Though the show did not fair well with most critics, a massive advertising campaign brought in a huge audience and the show won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score, Best Supporting Actor and Actress, and Faison took home a trophy for Best Choreography, the first African American to win that honor. He also won a Drama Desk Award for The Wiz.
In 1975 financial reasons forced Faison to end the Universal Dance Experience and for the rest of that decade and into the eighties Faison, while continuing to choreograph dances, began to move into directing for the musical theater. On occasion, his path would lead him to a revival of his most successful effort, The Wiz, the last of which was in 1995. “Under Mr. Faison’s guiding hand, the momentum rarely flags,” wrote Stephen Holden of the New York Times. “Without any fancy stage technology he has given the show a sense of continuous movement. The scenes dissolve into one another in a nonstop whirl of exuberantly choreographed energy.”
In 1996 Faison created a dance for Ballet Hispnico of New York based on the life and murder of Tejano music star, Selena, about which Jennifer Dunning of the New York Times declared as inventive, but not innovative. “Mr. Faison is a master at setting and changing scenes with flowing bursts of dancers, and one of the best things about Idol Obsession is the seamless way he shifts from stage to backstage to audience. But the new piece is otherwise not up to his usual level of invention.” That same year found other events on Faison’s plate as well as his musical Sing Mahalia, Sing! was revived as was his dance Suite Otis. In addition he founded the American Performing Arts Collaborative (A-PAC), a production organization which will develop and present theatrical, educational, and entertainment events. Faison shows no signs of slowing down either. He adapted, directed, and choreographed King for President Clinton’s 1997 inauguration and developed a new musical, Heaven and the Homeboy
For Faison, its only natural to keep working. His work is the result of living his dreams.” We have one thing in common,” Faison told Gruen in 1976. “O.K. we’re gonna be purple and green and this and that and we’re gonna change on each other as each day goes by but we have to remember that when we are alone and in our separate worlds, each and everyone of us still have dreams, and everybody would like to say, ‘Oh, that’s a white dream’ or That’s a black dream,’ or this or that or the other, but we all look at TV, we all do practically the same things so very definitely we all dream. So how can we, therefore, deny our dreams. So, I just go about living mine,” he concluded.
Ailey, Alvin with A. Peter Bailey, Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey, Birch Lane Press, 1995.
Dunning, Jennifer, Alvin Ailey: A Life in Dance, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., 1996.
Giordano, Gus, Anthology of American Jazz Dance, Orion Publishing House, 1975.
McDonagh, Don, The Complete Guide to Modern Dance, Doubleday and Co., 1976.
Woll, Allen, Black Musical Theatre: From Coontown to Dreamgirls, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Dance Magazine, October 1971, p. 90; November 1971, p. 102; July 1972, p. 74; April 1974, p. 26; May 1974; March 1975, p. 34; May 1976; March 1991.
Essence, January 1975, p. 25.
Dancing Times (London), February 1977, p. 273.
New York Times, January 6,1975, p. 32; January 12, 1975, p. B5; November 27, 1977, p. B6; March 19, 1995, p. C3; December 7, 1996, p. 17.
Additional information was provided by Fais One Productions, 1997, and a George Faison radio interview conducted by John Gruen on The Sound of Dance program broadcast on WNCN-FM, New York, December 12, 1976.
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