Back in the ’60s, revolutionary agendas in African American choreography were more likely to be political than artistic. Artists broadcast messages of protest and empowerment in variants of a modern dance vocabulary familiar to audiences. Why turn spectators off with propositions that were stridently antitheatrical?
Over the past 20 years, many black choreographers – whether probing issues of identity or enlarging the personal to take on quandaries and delights that beset all people-have become part of a post-modern mainstream legitimizing historical reference, social comment, theatricality and experimentation. Melting elements of African dance styles onto bodies honed in today’s New York has produced vigorous new strains.
Rooted in the vibrancy of rhythm, the works Reggie Wilson makes for his Fist and Heel Performance Group are elegantly structured; the man knows how to build a dance. In his wonderful solo N/um, stamping, breathing, moaning, grunting, slapping, and clapping build increasingly complex patterns. He barely moves from his spotlit pool, and that complexity, hammered out of his body, swells like a precariously controlled emotional tide. You can see why the practices of Spiritual Baptists, which he studied, lead to visions.
Music coaxes the dancing into other rhythmic games. Daniel Giel performs Tales from the Creek-marvelously-to the hoarse, bluesy thump of songs by Jesse Mae Hemphill and Junior Kimbough. The recorded voices of South African Zion Gospel buzz beneath the feet of Stephanie Tooman and Whitney Hunter in The Dew Wet. The quartet Pang is goaded by a gutsy live performance of traditional songs (“Gabriel in de garden, pickin’ white rose”) by Wilson, Elaine Flowers, Rhetta Aleong, and Lawrence Harding. ETD (Estimated Time of Departure), a dialogue by Aleong performed by Flowers and Harding, sharpens everyday speech with poetic rhythms to hint at a relationship crumbling.
The music has a rough sweetness. It sounds fresh from the garden, fresh from the heart. Like Wilson’s dances, the voices weave rhythms and resonances into a web that both restrains and releases feeling. All the pieces are like voyages; they tell no stories but the ones that dancing recounts. Giel goes from shambling along-feet loose but adept, arms hanging-to being the sly entertainer, leaping and bouncing along on his butt. In the duet, Tooman “calls” Hunter with little rhythmic shrugs of her shoulders, and they touch experimentally (she digs her head into his belly), but this is no romance. In their wrenched yet supple dancing, they’re adventuring along a path together, stopping here, then taking off again. The dance ends with each poised on one leg, the other stuck out behind, but there’s no way you’d call what they’re doing an arabesque. They’re at some brink, and the darkening of the lights leaves them suspended.
Pang too is full of fleeting drama and vital dancing. Giel bends himself into slow, crooked handstands, while the words “Have you ever been mistreated?” sink into your head. “It won’t be long,” say the voices while Edmund Melville trudges, runs, leaps. Even gestures like covering the eyes or pushing away a helping hand don’t need interpreting; they bubble up from a finely designed wellspring in which the rhythms of dancing and feeling articulate life.
There’s a lot to interpret in Gabri Christa and Cynthia Oliver’s shared concert “LUKosiMAD.” Say the Papiamento word aloud in your best Island accent, and you get a crazy woman. Sitting side by side in their opening Diabologue, the two choreographers perpetrate insanity as foxy transgressiveness-accumulating a pattern of burps, tongue play, fancy eye-winking, belly laughs, coughing fits, breast checks, and crotch grabs. Stuff you and your best friend got off on, executed with polished gravity.
Christa’s Sounds of Clapping Laughter and Oliver’s SHEMAD Part I explore madness in many guises. Oliver’s linked episodes are clearer than Christa’s collage, but the impact of both choreographers’ imaginative visions is undermined by irrationalities in structure and theatrical timing, as if the subject legitimized disorder.
Sounds of Clapping begins excitingly. Five women push a veiled figure (Jane Penn) kneeling in a small pram. As they toddle along- revolving, sinking down, slipping away-a sister’s hand or some strange force yanks them back into the group. The pram reappears only at the end, when Penn harvests the red panties the others have shed and wheels them away. The fascinating women (Nya Bowman, Alysia Ramos, Amy Lee, Felicia Swoope, Penn, and Christa) dance with abandoned finesse; a belligerent high kick with nicely pointed toe is liable to yield to shuddering and obsessive gestures. Sitting in a line elegantly defined by Philip Sandström’s lighting, they spread their legs and fan their crotches. Christa spits, and they all pull out handkerchiefs and scrub the floor. They can resemble femmes fatales, loving friends, raging creatures, or unhappy, squabbling children. A splendid score by Vernon Reid embeds the vivid scraps of behavior in luscious, variegated waves of sound, but can’t fully bind them together.
Oliver’s text for SHEMAD is not always easy to grasp. Voices natter over other voices, compete with percussionist Jason Finkelman’s intriguing score (played live by his “avant world” trio, Straylight), and drop into the honey accents of the Virgin Islands. Oliver introduces us to her compelling cast by having them propose, one by one, visions of women. But “one by one” is misleading; every image offered-some of them wild-elicits umms and yes, yess, laughter, instant actings-out, and interruptions. They embark on a great botched race in which nearly everyone jumps the gun and doubles back, eventually throwing even the destination into question. They dance, arms and legs beautifully akimbo. What are the shapes of madness? Is myth useful madness? Melissa Wynn staggers spectacularly around, throwing her skinny limbs in all directions; is she any nuttier than Oliver and Rhetta Aleong, who stand like two village aunties, gossiping about her in banshee voices? What’s behind Renee Redding Jones’s crazed state of mind? Why didn’t she “get on”? Cynthia Bueschel dances alongside her, suggesting and then retracting probable causes.
Oliver speaks out to us near the end: “How you going to contain me? Are you gonna call me mad?” Society has done that to females who ventured out of their prescribed roles. Christa explores the transgressiveness women often show only to one another; Oliver makes madness a rallying cry. Both gifted women strike out in so many directions that you can get lost following them through the bright jungles they’ve made.