BrownBody uses rink as stage for black history, culture

Brownbody skaters rehearse in unison.
From left, Deneane Richburg, Steven Smith, Carrie Maultsby-Lute and Lee Graham rehearse for Brownbody Presents: CoMotion inside the Charles M. Schulz Highland Arena in St. Paul on Friday, May 26, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Since she was a little girl, Deneane Richburg has loved to skate.

"I remember being really young, and the first few times on the ice just wanting to skate really fast," she said. "And even though I didn't know how to stop, I would just skate really fast until I slammed into the boards and I would let the boards stop me, and I did that time and time again."

Richburg's parents supported her love of skating. She took lessons and competed through several Twin Cities skating clubs. But she was always conscious of standing out.

"When I was younger there were many instances where I felt I had to check my blackness at the door before I went into the ice arena," she said. "I'm done doing that."

Now Richburg is the artistic director of BrownBody, a company that combines figure skating, modern dance and theater to explore African-American culture and history. This weekend's performance includes dance pieces by the New York-based Urban Bush Women, translated for ice skates, as well as work that deals with Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

While she enjoys competing in figure skating, Richburg wants the rink to be more than just a competitive space. She said she was influenced by her experiences studying with such St. Paul institutions as Penumbra Theatre and TU Dance.

Lee Graham, left, and Carrie Maultsby-Lute spin around each other.
Lee Graham, left, and Carrie Maultsby-Lute spin around each other during a rehearsal for Brownbody Presents: CoMotion inside the Charles M. Schulz Highland Arena in St. Paul, Minn. on Friday, May 26, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I'm having these transformative experiences in these spaces," she thought. "Why can't I have that on the ice? And how do I bring that to the ice?"

Richburg said putting on a performance is incredibly expensive. There's renting the rink for rehearsals. And because there are so few black skaters in the area, Richburg has to bring skaters in from across the country.

Steven Smith came from Nashville to be in the BrownBody show. Smith has competed and performed professionally for close to 20 years. Normally, he said, in his line of work the emphasis is on precision and execution. But with BrownBody:

"This is a whole new way of skating, a whole new way of expressing yourself, a whole new way of telling stories and actually getting to tell your story," he said. "There's no mold. And that's so freeing, it's liberating and it's something I've never experienced before."

Richburg says her goal is to make the skating rink a place where black skaters can bring their full selves, and feel at home.

"I don't want the perception of skating being a predominantly white space to be a deterrent," she said. "If there are any deterrents — sure, finances, I get it — but everybody should have the opportunity to get on the ice if they want. Have fun, enjoy the ice, enjoy feeling and experiencing your body moving on the ice, enjoy the speed, enjoy the momentum. It's something that I truly hope that for anyone who truly wants to experience it, they get that opportunity."

BrownBody's latest production, "CoMotion," runs Thursday through Sunday at the Charles M. Schulz Highland Arena in St. Paul. The performances include vocals by Thomasina Petrus and a solo by acclaimed figure skater and Minneapolis native Rohene Ward.

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