Laura Elaine Ellis is executive director of the African and African-American Performing Arts Coalition, and the cofounder-producer of the Black Choreographers Festival, scheduled for Feb 12-28. The wife and mother explains the need for community-based arts programs and the significance of her family in finding her life path.
Who has had the biggest influence on you in your life?
My grandma, Evelyn Freeman Roberts, who started her own big band at 1. She’ll be 91 next month. She ended up in L.A. and founded a performing arts school with my grandfather. She composed music for the Rat Pack; she was a pianist and an arranger. She dedicated half of her life to people in her community. She started a program for at-risk youth, doing theater, broadcast, music, dance.
My desire is to have a festival that serves the entire community, focusing on the African and African-American experience. Her desire was to serve the community, through art.
Is there a golden rule by which you live?
Keep the vision forward.
Where do you find inspiration?
In so many things. In children, in beautiful pieces of music, in an amazing meal and how it’s prepared, books … I’m a lover of day-to-day things as well as those moments that people will look at as sublime moments.
Is there something about you that people would find surprising?
That I play Sudoku. It was totally a fluke that I fell into it, through my child. I don’t get hooked up into them; I just do them one after another. It makes me relax.
What would you most want to hear your colleagues say about you?
“When I needed her, she was there for me.”
How do you see your role in the world?
My biggest strength is in consulting and bringing people together. I am an ideas person. Some of those ideas come into fruition; others I give to people. I love finding how art can be more accessible in people’s lives. I have an authentic desire to make sure there is art in the world.
How did you come to co-found the Black Choreographers Festival?
I’m the co-presenter. The predecessor was Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century — the brainchild of Halifu Osumare. It ended in 1996. Ten years later Kendra Kimbrough Barnes and I teamed up to present the next generation: Black Choreographers Here and Now. We began planning this in 2002. It took a few years to get it together, to get permission from Halifu, to create a fest that would cross the bridge. We wanted to present in both San Francisco and Oakland. The festival began in 2005.
Why is the festival significant?
There continues to be a need to pool resources for presenting artists. We need to rally community effort. To bring celebratory, significant programming that is vital to the community. Even though it has a focus on African and African-American community, it brings in such a wide audience. We bring great workshops and master classes to the community. We’re one of the least expensive concerts. The need is great for choreographers who don’t always have the resources to do new work.