Light on the Subject

African American Artists Engage a World of Styles, All to Live Music

From Bahia to Harlem, dance artists of African descent have made magic for generations. Various avatars brought diverse forms to town last month, giving the lie to complaints that dance can't be political, does not protest, is a frivolous pastime in a difficult period.

Retired now from her post at Lehman College in the Bronx, veteran choreographer-teacher Joan Miller still helms its troupe of Dance Players, whose compact, hour-long Boots, Back Talk and Beyond delighted audiences at the Duke on 42nd Street, May 17 and 18. Integrating the live music of Cooper-Moore and original poetry by Nadine Mozon and Miller, this production had a clear narrative line, despite the fact that work by guest choreographers Gus Solomons jr, Sheila Kaminsky, and Marlies Yearby dotted the bill. Scat singing by Cooper-Moore and Mozon, hand jive and heavily percussive boot dancing by the multiracial ensemble, imaginative lighting by Roma Flowers, and even political cartoons fed the sense of connection to the concerns of urban community life. Trained in a range of dance disciplines, the eight performers—five of them, luxuriously, male—would succeed on stages anywhere; the material speaks to novices and aficionados alike.

Black performers on dark stages against dark backdrops can be hard to see. The rock-concert lighting by David Szlasa deployed in Rennie Harris's Facing Mekka set a mood and revved our emotions, but left the dancers barely visible, their slow, moody break dancing making the piece feel like an extended dirge. When you calibrate lighting to accommodate video as backdrop, the illumination of performers tends to suffer. To my mind, this all-too-frequent dance-world strategy is a bad bargain. The lights finally came up about a third of the way through the 90-minute work, at the Joyce May 13 through 18. A complement of powerful women danced, for the most part, separately from the men, and two live musical performers, Philip Hamilton and Kenny Muhammad, strode the stage surrounded by rocking bodies; Darrin M. Ross composed the fusion score.

Duane Lee Holland Jr. and Dave Austin of Rennie Harris Puremovement in Facing Mekka
photo: Janet Levitt
Duane Lee Holland Jr. and Dave Austin of Rennie Harris Puremovement in Facing Mekka

Mekka's high point, if audience reaction is any indication, was a headspin that seemed to go on forever, evoking the screams that 32 fouettés do from a ballet crowd. The final section had Harris himself, a massive figure in a long black sweater and face-obscuring dreads, executing a butoh-influenced "dance of darkness" against video of a burning house. That we were uplifted by so much chaos and destruction—a companion called the conclusion of the work "the end of the world"—reveals the expressive power of hip-hop in the right hands. Maybe next time this Philadelphia-based dance artist will truly let us see it.

The lighting designer for Jelon Vieira's DanceBrazil, Kim Palma, seems to have mastered the skill of illuminating the troupe's gorgeous, largely Bahian performers. Following Harris into the Joyce, and also to live music, this ensemble demonstrated some of the dance legacy that Harris and his Puremovement group are transforming for contemporary North Americans. The 2002 Canavial, choreographed by Vieira to music by Tote Gira, is an episodic work dance derived from experiences in the sugarcane fields, and incorporates aspects of maculele, the acrobatic stick dance that evolved from the gestures of harvesting cane.

The newer Missão is more abstract. At times, lacking both the force of folklore and the formal economy of strong choreography, it gets lost in its own lushness. Much of it deploys unison ensembles, and though one is riveted by the limber dancers, the juxtaposition of what look like classroom exercises against the looping forms of capoeira doesn't substitute for the distillations of art. Missão feels like a happy day in a stadium or at a samba festival, with sequences repeated many times.

Afrofuturistic, Tracie Morris's curious fusion of live music, spoken word, video, and the protean physical and vocal skills of David Thomson, fell a little flat at the Kitchen (May 15 through 24). Morris's script, for a woman named Sirena (played by the writer) and her muse (Thomson), was opaque in the extreme, and she herself lacks the charisma to hold the stage for an hour, even sharing it with the luminous man whose voice, brain, and moves are among the genuine treasures of the downtown scene. Set on a trained dancer with less tension in her shoulders, this high-tech experiment might spring to life.

"Tap Extravaganza 2003," a family gathering at FIT overflowing with love and fleet feet, featured the 87-year-old Ernest "Brownie" Brown, the still-clever director Stanley Donen, the tall, suave Tommy Tune, and the elegant and loquacious Dianne Walker as recipients of Flo-Bert Awards, the tap world's Oscars. Honoring a form to grow old with, this celebration of National Tap Dance Day on May 25 attracted one of the most thoroughly integrated crowds I've ever had the pleasure to witness. The Frank Owens Trio bathed the proceedings in responsive piano jazz. In the black community, artists seem to understand the inseparable relationship between dance and music, finding the means to keep both constituencies working, to our constant pleasure.

 
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