As founder and director of Oakland’s Dimensions Dance Theater, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a special performance this week in The City, Vaughan has mined distinct voices of the African diaspora to present them to American audiences.
Her mission was defined by the social and political environment of the 1960s. “We had not seen ourselves or the influences in our lives onstage,” she says. “We wanted to show all of what the African diaspora had brought to the greater culture.”
Ironically, some of her harshest criticism came from within the black community when she incorporated modern and jazz dance into her performances. “This was the early 1970s,” she explains. “I believed it was in our interest to be cross-cultural. We were criticized for that. We were supposed to be an African dance company. Today, everybody is overlapping, but this was 40 years ago. People wanted to put you in a box, but I always refused to be in it.”
Dimensions Dance Theater’s anniversary program Saturday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts includes excerpts from the company’s repertory plus the world premiere of “Rhythms of Life: Down the Congo Line.”
Set to live music and traditional rituals, “Rhythms,” which demonstrates the legacy of Congolese dance in Brazil, Cuba and New Orleans, is a work particularly close to Vaughan’s heart.
“I visited the Congo a few years ago for its 50th anniversary. I knew there were going to be big celebrations and dancing,” she says. Although the worst of that country’s internecine war had been over for two years, periodic outbreaks of violence persisted. “One of the performances I saw was without words — the people weren’t allowed to talk about the war, but they danced about what they had experienced, what they had lived through. It was really, really powerful.”
Vaughan has always sought to educate her audiences and her students about the role that sub-Saharan Africa has played in our own cultural evolution.
“There are so many layers to investigate. We want our students to learn about themselves, to learn about American history and how it connects to Africa — and not just to Africa but to the other parts of the world. They learn that all of us come from somewhere that has history, dance and art, and that we can celebrate those things and bring them to the stage.”
IF YOU GO
Dimensions Dance Theater Celebration at 40
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $25 to $30
Contact: (415) 978-2787, www.ybca.org