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ON THE SCENE: Telling the story of Timbuctoo through dance

Dancer Tracy Dunbar and Ashley LaRosa pose in front of the memorial at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

When Tiffany Rea-Fisher, artistic director of the Elisa Monte Dance Company, asked John Donk, manager of the Lake Placid Center for the Arts’ Gallery 46 on Main Street, to tell her something about Lake Placid that she might not know, the answer floored her. Rea-Fisher, who’s been coming to Lake Placid with the dance company for 16 summers, had no idea that abolitionist John Brown was buried here.

Rea-Fisher is from Harlem. She is African-American. She is fully aware who John Brown is, but that he lived and is buried here along with the other Harpers Ferry raiders, that was a surprise. So too was learning about Timbuctoo, abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s land giveaway that enabled New York state free Blacks to vote.

The ethnically diverse dance company, founded in 1981 with the vision of bridging cultural barriers through dance, is back in Lake Placid for its annual residency as it has done for more than two decades. Since its beginnings, the company has sought to engage its community on a multitude of fronts. In Lake Placid, that now includes expanding their presence from having a summer residency to working with the LPCA year-round. Rea-Fisher and Elisa Monte’s Executive Director David Sadowsky are now co-directing the Lake Placid School of Dance from their base in Manhattan. They are both teaching online and sending company members to be in residence for two- to three-week rotations collectively maintaining a presence throughout the school year.

Typically, the company teaches in-person classes during the summer; this year, those classes are being broadcast online from the LPCA. Once classes were over, they had planned to work on a project for the University Games, but COVID forced them to modify aspects of their planning. LPCA Executive Director James Lemons then asked them since they were here, was there some other opportunity they’d like to explore, such as making a dance piece about the Adirondacks or Lake Placid.

“I loved that idea because I love giving back to a community that has given so much to me artistically,” said Rea-Fisher. “So, I started Googling about Lake Placid and the region such as lore and myth. Everything was about Lady of the Lake. I knew that story, I get it, but I wondered if there is more to be had. I called John Donk, who runs Gallery 46 on Main Street for the art center, to see if he had any ideas. I asked what’s in Lake Placid that I don’t know about. He said, ‘Do you know about John Brown?’ I had no idea that Brown had lived and was buried here. He said, ‘Wait a second,’ and all of a sudden, I had all these e-introductions and site visits.”

Donk sent her two critical links, the Wikipedia page on John Brown and Martha Swan, founder-director of John Brown Lives.

“I couldn’t believe, the gravesite is 10 minutes from the art center. I’ve been coming here for 16 years. How did I not know this existed?” Rea-Fisher said. “We’ve driven past the entrance road countless times. I couldn’t believe that it was here. It was such a gift. I thought this is so perfect, but can I choreograph a piece in the short amount of time that we had left in our residency? We had a camera crew here, but we had just six days. Can we do it?”

Rarely does Rea-Fisher have with her the company manager, their scene designer, their videographer and the entire dance company. This time she did because of the online classes they’ve been holding. She decided that they were going to make it happen. As for sleep, not possible. Rea-Fisher dove into learning all she could about John Brown and Timbuctoo and exploring all aspects of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site’s landscape, buildings and exhibits.

“I spoke with our dancers,” said Rea-Fisher. “We have this opportunity to create something. They were so excited. First, we’ve never made a dance film before. We’ve had performances and workshops filmed, but never created a dance for film. And to bring in John Brown Lives! We are already thinking beyond this piece, thinking about pieces for education. We’ve gone down that rabbit hole. But when I saw the excitement on my dancers’ faces, creating this piece around John Brown felt so important.”

I asked her what’s the aspect of John Brown that she wants to tell through dance. She responded that there is a call for people to become allies, a person who steps out of their comfort zone to fight against racism and advocate for social justice. An ally embodies that work in how they live and treat others, and treat all people. She feels we here in the Adirondacks have energy, that permission, already rooted in our soil. Her goal is to tell that story through dance, to reinforce that energy and encourage people to step forward.

“If you are of this place, it’s here, it’s in your blood,” said Rea-Fisher. “It’s of this place. John Brown is the ultimate ally. You already have a path forward. You can visit your own history, learn from that, and decide how you want to translate that into a 2020 point of view.”

The dancers were also surprised to learn that the historic site is in Lake Placid and pleased to create a new work based on Timbuctoo.

“My initial reaction was ‘Wow, I can’t believe it took me so long to learn that it was here,’ and pleasantly surprised to learn what and why John Brown did what he did,” said Tracy Dunbar. “I am so glad that we are working to bring Timbuctoo to life through film and dance.”

“I’m glad that we’re starting to research Timbuctoo and the Adirondacks,” said Danielle Funicello. “I’m looking forward to bringing that to the forefront of discussion through the arts, through dance and film, and to helping educate my students who may not know about the history of John Brown.”

“I think we were meant to do this project,” said Ashley LaRosa.

Martha Swan, founder and director of John Brown Lives!, was delighted to meet Tiffany Rea-Fisher and the dancers, lead them through the Timbuctoo display, and brainstorm ideas for this project and future collaborations. Collaborating with a dance company is a dream Swan’s held for decades but hearing that they just learned about the farm underscored a need to broaden awareness about the historic site now more than ever.

“I think it’s great that we can be a venue for such a creative project,” said historic site Manager Brendan Mills. “I think it’s a great way to keep the memories of Timbuctoo and John and Mary Brown alive. Also, it helps one look at the park in a different way.”

On Saturday, Aug. 29, at 4 p.m., John Brown Lives! is hosting a Violin Vigil at the farm for Elijah McClain, a 23-year old African-American violinist who died a year ago after a fatal encounter with Aurora, Colorado police officers. At the time, he was walking home, unarmed, and listening to music with his earbuds. His death was declared a “wrongful death” in the courts.

Jazz musician and recording artist Charlie Burnham will lead the vigil.