By Walter Rutledge
In life there are no detours, it is always the course appointed. Despite all of our plans and dreams we can count on the universe to add some unexpected twists and turns. Thelma Hill Preforming Arts Center’s Executive Chairman Alex Smith Jr. knows this all to well. In 1995 Smith become the guiding force of the organization by proxy, now twenty-one years later he was honored with a Service to the Field Award at the 29th New York Dance and Performance Awards- The Bessies.
The Bessie Awards took place on October 18th at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For the last five years the Apollo Theater had been home to The Bessies. For Smith the change of venue and borough honors the strong arts contributions of Brooklyn based artists including the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center (THPAC). The Bessies move also reinforces the growing narrative surrounding the resurgence of Brooklyn and the boroughs emerging artistic presence.
Larry Phillips and longtime friend and colleague Thelma Hill recognized the dearth of presenting organizations showcasing minority talent and in 1976 formed Our Children’s Center in Brooklyn at the YWCA, 30 Third Avenue, downtown Brooklyn. Shortly after Hill’s tragic accidental death in 1977 Phillip renamed the organization in her memory. From the beginning (THPAC) presented important emerging artists of color including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Louis Johnson, Talley Beatty, Phildanco, Forces of Nature, Diane McIntyre, Dallas Black Dance Theatre, The Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (Ailey II), Fred Benjamin, George Faison’s Universal Dance Experience, Loretta Abbott and the list goes on.
Melvin Davis succeeded Phillips in 1987 and immediately expanded programming to reach more underrepresented artists and companies including showcases for female choreographers, post modernists and the LGBTQ community. Davis’ untimely death in 1995 left the organization without leadership. To complicate matters final grant reports had not been completed, outstanding debt accrued and tax problems soon followed.
The organization was doomed to disappear, going the way of many small arts organizations with limited resources. Smith, a graphic designer and visual artist who had designed posters and promotional material for THPAC, felt a need to step up and save the organization. Marshall Swiney assisted Smith serving as Artistic Director of THPAC until 2005.
Over his twenty-one year tenure (just slightly longer than Phillips and Davis combined) he has returned the organization to solvency. Through it all Smith has remained true to the THPAC credo showcasing new dance makers and broadening the definition of people of color to include Asian and Latin choreographers. Smith has also conceived and produced original dance theatre works such as A Ramp To Paradise. The mission now also encompasses preserving and presenting the works of 20th century masters such as Eleo Pomare, Talley Beatty, George Faison and Rod Rogers. Smith’s quest, to find the new and cutting edge artists, has introduced the public to a whole new generation of dancers, choreographers and companies; including Kyle Abraham, Germaul Barnes, Bones The Machine, Camille Brown, Jamal Gaines, Judah International Dance Theatre, Orlando Hunter, Purelements, and Jamal Story. He approaches THPAC with the same positive energy and artistic curiosity that he applies to life.
“THPAC has a small footprint but a massive impact on the dance scene. We present and help launch careers for dance artists of color. That is the major part of our prime directive,” Smith proudly states.
Alex Smith- Bessies Acceptance Speech
The award and acknowledgement from the dance community lives up to the words of the late Reverend James Cleveland. “Give me my flowers while I yet live so that I can see the beauty that they bring.” We offer a well-deserved congratulation for Alex Smith Jr., a true unsung hero on life’s course appointed.