Arts / Performing Arts

Dallas’ Social Dancer

A Powerful Family’s Daughter Fearlessly Tackles Bold Issues on Stage

BY // 04.03.17
photography Eric Politzer

This month, Catherine Ellis Kirk performs for the first time on The Kennedy Center stage. She’s not a newbie to Washington — her parents are Ron Kirk, the first African American mayor of Dallas and a former U.S. Trade Representative, and Matrice Ellis-Kirk, managing partner for RSR Partners and chairman of the AT&T Performing Arts Center board of directors.

The family spent much time over the last several years in Washington D.C. with their friends, the Obamas. But there is something decidedly different about this trip. A professional dancer with New York-based Abraham.in.Motion, Kirk performs The Gettin’, choreographed by the company’s founder Kyle Abraham, and part of Ballet Across America, a multi-company event orchestrated by New York City Ballet’s wunderkind resident choreographer, Justin Peck.

“Kyle Abraham took great inspiration from South Africa and the Apartheid, segregation, uprising, and protest,” Kirk says. “It is an extremely challenging piece to perform… but the spirit of resilience and protest onstage gives us a heightened energy that is not always a given in dance.”

The company showed the same piece in Vancouver in March. Post-performance an audience member approached Kirk to tell her that she lived in South Africa during Apartheid. “She was so proud of us for presenting work that reflects and gives justice to our histories and societies, and questions our growth — or lack thereof — especially pertaining to racism, classism, gender, and sexuality,” Kirk says.

The multimedia piece is particularly exciting for Kirk because of its lighting and video design by Dan Scully, costumes by Karen Young, set design by visual artist Glenn Ligon, and music composed by Grammy Award-winning producer and jazz pianist Robert Glasper.

Politically charged art that taps into social and racial issues is familiar territory for the 25-year-old dancer, who studied dance at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, before attending New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “It’s not about telling people what to think,” says Kirk of the reasons she is drawn to thought-provoking work. “But about making people think and question their own views.”

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Kirk was first exposed to Kyle Abraham’s work during a performance at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan. He performed a solo from his piece, Live! The Realest MC, which uses the tale of Pinocchio as a means to explore gender roles and sexuality, particularly the notion of masculinity, the pressures of machismo, and Abraham’s struggle of being a gay black man growing up in Pittsburgh.

Kirk left knowing she wanted to be part of a company that wasn’t afraid of producing bold pieces often considered controversial in the world of traditional dance. Abraham.in.Motion, which is well regarded for its provocative work that pushes boundaries and explores human behavior and histories, was her answer. As Kirk will now tell you, “It is my calling.”

Case in point? Asked who inspires her most, she notes Houston native, Jasmine Hearn, a prolific dancer, choreographer, vocalist, and solo artist. The pair first met while working for Helen Simoneau Danse — Kirk is in her second season with the Winston-Salem, North Carolina, company — and it was magnetic from the beginning.

“Every time I witness her art, I feel seen and important; beautiful and unashamed of my pain and heartaches,” says Kirk. “Her honesty in her work and presence as a black queer woman, and her pride and confidence in what she knows is right excites me, and gives me hope in the future — and in the work and effort I know our generation can put forth.”

As for the young dancer’s long-term goals, it’s a topic that gives her pause as she considers the reality that dancing isn’t a career that lasts forever. With a pragmatism that confirms Kirk is wise beyond her years, she deadpans: “When I think about the future, I think about one thing — longevity.” Just a dancer, Kirk is not. “I don’t want people to get excited and think I’ll follow in my dad’s footsteps one day,” she says, “But I do see myself always getting involved in promoting change in my community. It’s mind boggling that people can see things around them happening, and don’t want to do anything about it.”

Kirk’s keen attention to issues of the day, particularly those that involve women’s rights and racial equality, are no doubt independently formed, despite having grown up around politics and civically active parents. In January, Kirk participated in the Women’s March in New York City; she speaks passionately about how women should have the right and availability to choose, and how her concern about the environment and global warming is paramount.

For now, though, Catherine Ellis Kirk’s focus is on her work — and growing into her role as a passionate, visionary artist, who uses movement as a catalyst to promote open mindedness and progress. She is keeping busy on that path: In addition to Abraham.in.Motion and Helen Simoneau Danse, she is a member of UNA Projects, founded by fellow Tisch alum, Chuck Wilt.

In the end, it all comes down to expression. “Dancing is the easiest way for me to communicate,” Kirk confesses. “Sometimes I wish I could just dance, and that people would understand exactly what I am trying to say.”

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