2022 Johnson Fellows

Americans for the Arts is honored to recognize these two extraordinary dance artists—Charya Burt of Windsor, CA and Christopher “Mad Dog” Thomas of Chicago—as the 2022 Johnson Fellows for Artists Transforming Communities. Each is recognized with a $35,000 award.

CHARYA BURT

Charya posed in dance.

Charya Burt is a master dancer, choreographer, vocalist, and teacher of classical Cambodian dance. Through dance, her purpose is to help the Cambodian diaspora reconcile the ongoing effects of the Khmer Rouge Genocide toward building healthier communities and strengthening cultural identity. As a traditional artist, she trained with Cambodia’s foremost dance masters who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide and has dedicated her life to mastering the 4,000 plus gestures that comprise the vocabulary as well as the dances that make up the classical repertory. Through formal instruction, workshops, public performances, and the creation of new works, she advances the classical tradition among new generations across the U.S., with longstanding and deep commitment to California’s urban centers and rural towns where Cambodians live. She has been recognized with numerous awards including a Dance/USA Fellowship, the Isadora Duncan Award for Individual Performance, a Living Cultures Award from the Association of California Traditional Artists, and a Hewlett 50 Arts Commissions award.

Realizing that the classical form would need to evolve for it to remain relevant for the young dancers and communities she serves, Charya has boldly pushed the form in contemporary ways—technically, thematically, and musically—to speak to the American-born generations. Her classical and original works provide a bridge between generations of Cambodian Americans as elders suffer from PTSD and generational trauma reverberates in families and communities. Original works provide a platform for Cambodian community members and broader publics to understand and talk about contemporary issues such as immigrant and refugee displacement, while amplifying the importance of traditional arts in community healing and celebration as well as in achieving racial and cultural equity.

Through her teaching, choreography, speaking and as a master culture bearer, Charya works to help Cambodian American communities to heal and move beyond their tragic history and define themselves by the values and beauty of their rich culture.

In 2022, Charya will bring together four generations of multi-disciplinary Cambodian American artists to begin work on a new dance theater piece, The Rebirth of Apsara. It will explore how Khmer arts have embodied the essence of Cambodian culture from ancient mythology to its post-1970s genocide revitalization. She will also create Beautiful Dark, a collaborative dance piece that explores the social and psychological impact of colorism and the physical, emotional, and cultural implications it has for persons of color.  Charya will continue to create Cambodian dance and costume instructional videos and provide teacher training to past apprentices to help ensure perpetuation of the dance.

CHRISTOPHER "MAD DOG" THOMAS

Side profile of Mad Dog who is wearing an animal print jacket.Dancer, choreographer, educator, and activist, Christopher “Mad Dog” Thomas is an exemplar of Juke/Footwork, a dynamic dance form originating in the streets of Chicago and rooted in a culture of urban artistry and activism. Born and raised in Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens housing project, he was inspired to dance at age five by artists like Michael Jackson and New Edition.

Nearly two decades ago, Mad Dog turned to dance to survive the trauma of gun violence to which he lost a friend. Footworking was a way to be vulnerable in an environment of toxic masculinity and he became a member of, lead choreographer, and spokesperson for the FootworKINGz which made it to the semifinals of America’s Got Talent and Ellen’s Really Big Show. Mad Dog is famous for his 170 beats per minute footwork, musicality, individuality and stage presence, but also for creating deep space for others to develop their own genuine expressions. In 2020, Mad Dog was recognized as one of six Lab Artists by Chicago Dancemakers Forum to receive funds and tailored support to aid in research, development, and presentation of new dance work.

In 2005, Mad Dog joined Kuumba Lynx (KL), a healing and culture making organization working for liberation through artistic expression for Chicago’s youth and their families. As a teacher and KL’s program manager, he has built an inclusive space for young people, grounded in critical thinking, artistic excellence, popular education, and a foundation of love. Using footwork as a tool for activism and liberation, and drawing on lived experience, he engages youth and creates space to understand and address issues of environmental racism, police violence, the carceral system and school to prison pipeline. Devoted to Chicago communities impacted by these issues, he also teaches footwork at a juvenile temporary detention center as a part of a social/emotional development program.  

In 2022, Thomas will explore codifying his style of Chicago Footwork while developing new choreographies that tell the stories of how bodies react to certain traumas. Shortness of Breath, part of a collection of work titled Footwork Through the Trauma, explores the effects of environmental racism from which Thomas himself, as well as family members, have suffered with respiratory problems. Another new project will partner each of four community dance groups with a DJ and a footworking artist. Thomas will engage participants in “knowledge ciphers” on topics of toxic masculinity, anti-blackness, and social and political movements that inform and inspire the creation of new original work.

Johnson Fellowship Process

Johnson Fellows are chosen through a nomination and selection process. Twelve Nominators from across the country representing a range of dance forms and knowledge of community engaged practice each nominate one artist. They are invited to look regionally and nationally, as well as in their own communities. In 2022, Nominators included choreographers, dancers, educators, presenter, service organization leader, local arts agency leader, and others who support dance artists.

A separate seven-member Selection Panel (in 2022, six from the dance field and one AFTA staff) review and discuss all nominations and make the final choice. In addition to AFTA’s own research, we ask members of the dance community to recommend Panelists who would bring understanding of the genres and aesthetics represented in the group of 2022 nominees and who would also be open to a wide range of dance and ways of thinking about community and community transformation.

Learn more about the distinguished 2022 Nominees, Nominators and Selection Panelists here and from past years: 2020, 2019, 2018. Learn about past Johnson Fellowship recipients here.

About the Fellowship

At Americans for the Arts, we believe that artists have a profound capacity to transform America’s communities. Across the nation, through their work in neighborhoods, schools, community settings, and with other sectors, they are fostering cultural expressions that broaden perspectives on issues and help envision new possibilities. Artists are partnering with Local Arts Agencies and others to solve problems, bridge divides, and build leadership, capacity, and public will to participate in civic life. The annual award honors an individual artist who demonstrates a sustained commitment to civic participation through their work, and who has made a positive and meaningful difference to inspire, inform, engage, challenge, animate, and celebrate communities through arts and culture.

The award provides the Fellow with time to pursue their creative work in communities. Additionally, it provides national opportunity for each Fellow to reflect upon and discuss the role of the artist in transforming America’s communities with Americans for the Arts’ constituents and publics through speaking, writing, or other engagement opportunity.

Robert Leroy Johnson, the first executive director of the King County Arts Commission, is credited with laying the groundwork for the Northwest's thriving public arts scene. He served as commission director from 1972 to 1980 and was best known for establishing King County's one percent for art policy. Enacted in 1973, it was one of the first programs in the country to set aside a portion of the county's capital-improvement budget specifically for public art. Born and raised in Schenectady, NY, and a graduate of Kansas State University, he lived a life grounded in the arts. He was an accomplished trumpet player and a published writer. He and his wife, Laurel, founded Skid Road Theater in Seattle. By 1979, he had established the International Earthworks Symposium. Artists from around the world were invited to Seattle and asked to incorporate art into rehabilitating huge tracts of local land that had been "ravaged by technology." The Johnson Fellowship was arranged by former Americans for the Arts board member Jerry Allen, for whom Mr. Johnson was a mentor.