Alex Smith, Jr.: Executive Chairman
Chosen To Preserve Black Dance
Thirty seconds to a legacy, that’s all it took. In 1985 Alex Smith’s friend Steven Latture, a dance enthusiast, invited him to a performance at the famed Brooklyn Academy of Music. While standing in the lobby Latture introduced him to Larry Phillips, executive director of the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center, the organization hosting the night’s event. Unbeknownst to Alex, that handshake and thirty-second encounter was the doorway through which he would walk to lift and carry Phillips legacy a little more than a decade later, without ever having seen him again.
So here’s the story.
Freshly fired from his art director position at a traditional nine to five, Alex launched his own graphic design company, Lex Graphics, and quickly began to sign up clients. It was 1985 and black entrepreneurship was booming in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York. Among the hairstylists, designers, restaurateurs and other cultural purveyors Alex found his niche. Three years in he placed an ad in a local newspaper, The City Sun, and elicited a response from just one reader, Melvin Davis, the new executive director of the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center. Davis was in search of an artist to create a new image for the organization. During their meeting Alex learned that just two years after meeting Larry Phillips in the hallowed halls of BAM, he died and Davis took up the helm. As Alex revamped THPAC’s image Davis became a dear friend, mentor and passer of a very heavy baton.
Davis was a true lover of dance and frequently encouraged Alex to accompany him to performances. Although Alex had no real interest in dance or the trials and tribulations of running a not-for-profit Davis consistently shared the story of his day-to-day. For someone else this might have tarnished if not ended the friendship, but Alex allowed his friend to both vent and gloat when appropriate, even though he believed none of it would ever have anything to do with him. They remained close friends until Davis’ death seven years later in 1995.
Still reeling from the loss of his friend Alex asked to look over THPAC paperwork. ”It spoke to me,” he says. The advisory board had dissolved and no one wanted to take on the challenge of running the organization. Years of listening, and the legacy contained in those papers, made Alex realize the impact and importance of THPAC. He determined he couldn’t let it die with Melvin. He decided he would do the work temporarily if he found help. Along came choreographer Marshall Swiney. They joined forces, Alex as Executive Chairman and Swiney as Artistic Director. They put their heads down, pulled the organization out of debt and re-launched THPAC in June 1996 at Long Island University’s Triangle Theater where the organization had hosted it’s annual season for the previous four years.
Alex says accepting the challenge was a way for him to grieve Davis, and serve as a placeholder until the right person came along. As he began going through the archives he leaned two things: he was the right person, not the care keeper holding the spot for someone else, and that Davis’ had actually been the placeholder setting the path for him.
On October 18, 2016 Alex stepped onto the stage of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the very hall where he met Phillips thirty-one years earlier, to receive a Bessie Award—the equivalent of an Academy Award in the dance world—for Outstanding Service to the Field of Dance and his “21-year commitment to the presentation and preservation of dance by choreographers of color.”
It has not been easy for Alex, but he has stayed committed to the organization and the audience it serves. Over the years he has found a new performance home for THPAC and solidified a relationship with Brooklyn Ballet for rehearsal space. Two accomplishments he considers his greatest are the introduction of Peeks Works in Progress, which gives THPAC a year-round presence, and the addition of original productions, which has allowed the organization to develop a repertoire, something unusual for a presenting organization. Past productions are Audre Lorde in Motion, a collaboration between spoken word artists and choreographers, and A Ramp to Paradise, an homage to the outstanding dancing for which New York’s legendary Paradise Garage was known. This year the organization introduces its third original production, The Gospel According to THPAC.
A Few Answers
Who do have to be to do what you do?
“In my case it was more about who I had to become. I had to learn how to produce. I had to grow thicker skin to deal with the ongoing challenges of fundraising, and I had to learn to preserve the legacy of an organization with an enormous history and a ton of archival material.”
What is in the boxes?
“An absolutely overwhelming amount of history: handwritten notes from Catherine Dunham, a letter from Alvin Ailey, video and photos going back 40 years, a program from a 1930s negro dance company, a cancelled check from Cissy Houston, and tons of newspaper and magazine articles. THPAC has a rich and robust history. The very first dancer to ever perform for the organization was the renowned choreographer and artistic director of Dance Africa, Chuck Davis, who died last month. THPAC is a presenting organization, thus its archives is different from other organizations. A dance company will have materials related to its own history. THPAC has materials from every dance company and choreographer it has presented over 40 years.”
Who came before you in this field that we should know?
“Thelma Hill, of course, and Joan Myers Brown, founder of The Philadelphia Dance Company (PHILADANCO) and The Philadelphia School of Dance Arts. She finally received the recognition she deserves with the 2012 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony. It made me extremely happy. Joan is a real gem! For THPAC’s 40th anniversary in June 2016 she brought 8 dancers to New York to perform and returned in October of the same year to present me with the Bessie.”
“Three things: THPAC’s 41st annual season, The Gospel According to THPAC. A permanent home for THPAC’s archival materials because Melvin Davis always dreamed of having the organization’s materials housed in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. When the library and I were awarded a Bessie on the same night, I knew it was time for me to work on making his dream a reality. Last August I began the process. It has been confirmed and soon we will move a majority of the materials to the climate controlled, computerized environment. In August I will visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture to begin talks for the placement of the remainder of our artifacts.”
THPAC’s 41st Season
The Gospel According to THPAC is an original dance narrative covering the sojourn of black America from pre-slavery to Black Lives Matter as well as a historical timeline tracing the development of gospel music. Three choreographers—Nijawwon Matthews, Jamel Gaines and THPAC’s artistic advisor, Walter Rutledge—will tell the story.
June 26 through June 28
Actors Fund Arts Center, 160 Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn, NY
Tickets: $20, $15 for students and seniors
Purchase at THPAC’s website or at the door. The box office opens at 6:45 pm, and performances start at 7:30
© Jelani Bandele 2017