Deneane Richburg skated to the center of the rink quickly, expertly, like the competitive figure skater she once was. Then she turned to her troupe, and her face and body softened. “So, it’s going to be like ... ”
Silently, she glided across the ice, straight toward another skater, who was standing still. They locked eyes. She got within inches of him before turning, gently circling him. The rink was quiet until Richburg finally broke her gaze.
“Whoa,” someone said, and the group started laughing, chattering.
Richburg, 41, is turning the ice rink into a stage for moves like these, stories like hers. As artistic director of Brownbody, Richburg creates on-ice performances that combine skating, dance and theater — centering African-American history and culture in a space where, as a black kid growing up in Maplewood, she often felt out of place.
During an afternoon rehearsal last week, skaters spiraled and wove, firming up the choreography of Brownbody’s newest piece, “Tracing Sacred Steps.” The troupe will present an excerpt from the piece in free exhibitions Thursday and Saturday afternoons in conjunction with performances by the Montreal-based skating troupe Le Patin Libre, presented by Walker Art Center and Northrop.
“I’m really interested in getting beyond and outside the boundaries of traditional skating,” Richburg said, “and seeing what else the ice can offer.”
Past Brownbody performances have centered on Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” and on the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. This piece honors black social dances from slavery in America — specifically the “ring shout,” a ritual during which African slaves would form a circle, shuffling and stepping counterclockwise, calling and responding. It brought people together, offering them a chance to connect beyond the brutality of their lives.
Given the discriminatory acts that continue today, Richburg said, what tools do black people have to come together?
“Why can’t ring shout still serve that role in 2019?” she said. “I’m really interested in collapsing time and showing how these beautiful, culturally rooted practices can continue to serve us today.”
Actor and singer Thomasina Petrus has performed poetry and songs with Brownbody for years — wearing boots, not skates. Richburg “has a way of creating a space where people can be OK with asking the hard questions,” Petrus said. “Because some of this material is about the history of black people in America. So this is not going to be sweet. It’s beautiful how we land on our feet; that resilience is what we’re celebrating.
“But if we don’t know what we’re overcoming, you can’t really appreciate how amazing it is.”
There’s something so moving about seeing the black story on ice, Petrus added. “She’s taking this sport that has been so exclusive, she’s taking this art form and opening it up.”
Richburg does that in a practical way, too: by offering free skating lessons. Getting on the ice can be costly, she noted, so to erase that barrier, she just asks that parents “pay what makes you happy.”
A high-energy kid, Richburg started skating at age 5. She loved the feeling of flying.
She took private lessons, competed. Often she was the only black kid on the rink. As she became more serious, she took dance classes to complement her training. Then, in her early 20s, a knee injury: She tore her right lateral meniscus. Three surgeries later, she dug into dance.
She credits dance, with its focus on balance, with correcting the misalignments in her body. It also opened up her artistry. Earning a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studying with dancers including Toni Pierce-Sands of TU Dance, Richburg discovered “an emotional and creative fullness that I hadn’t experienced on the ice.” Working with Penumbra Theatre, too, expanded her idea of how a story could be told.
In March, Richburg won a $40,000, two-year Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship. She was “super, super humbled” by the award, she said, crediting the “rich community of black artists,” including those at Penumbra, who “gave me a permission or a pathway to do this work.”
Richburg and Lela Aisha Jones, Brownbody’s artistic adviser, try to merge the skating, dance and theater worlds, seeing what happens when modern dance techniques meet ice skates. The pair met at Temple University in Philadelphia, performing each other’s choreography and producing shows for fellow black female choreographers.
“How do you take something that is earth, floor, feet-on-the-ground and bring it to the ice?” Jones said during a rehearsal at the Charles M. Schulz-Highland Arena in St. Paul. “A lot of things have to be transformed. Sometimes we decide: ‘That needs to be a glide,’ or ‘That’s just not going to work on the ice.’
“Also, what can the ice do that the earth can’t?”
Earlier this month four skaters from across the United States gathered in Minnesota for rehearsals. (The pool of professional black skaters is limited, Richburg noted, “so I have to pull people in from all over the country and sometimes beyond.”) They dug into the choreography, set to the cello-rich score of the film “If Beale Street Could Talk.” They heard from a historian about the significance of ring shout. Then, they improvised.
Steven Smith has performed with Brownbody before. But freestyling is still scary, he said.
In shows such as Disney on Ice, movements are highly regimented. A longtime professional skater, Smith knows the rules. “You put on a good show, with clean choreography, but there’s no real character. You can’t bring character to it. You can’t bring blackness to it, basically.”
Brownbody has taught Smith, 48, “a whole new way of skating, a whole new way of expressing myself, a whole new way of using my body.” It’s also taught him African-American history that he previously hadn’t known.
Take ring shout. Richburg helped teach the group about the dance’s origins and history. Together, they’ve broken down its form and reconstructed, with plenty of improvisation, a new version of it.
“She digs and digs and digs and digs,” Smith said of Richburg, “and comes up with something beautiful.”
During an afternoon rehearsal, as the skaters worked through a transition on the ice, Petrus warmed up in the penalty box, humming. Then, after outfitting her boots with cleats, she stepped out onto the ice, Richburg holding her hand. The skaters formed a circle, moving counterclockwise to the music: hand claps, tambourines, the rhythm building. Petrus began singing, softly at first, then louder.
“Swing me, swing me, swing me, my Lord.”
The skaters stepped and shuffled, left and right, kicking up their blades. They threw their hands high, then low. As Petrus’ voice reverberated in the arena, their skates scraped against the ice.