Black Music


A lone guy comes onstage, singing and plucking a ukulele. Your mind starts humming. This is the verse; what’s the chorus it’s simmering up to? Suddenly—bam!—the lights blaze and an art deco bandstand designed by Thomas Lynch rolls forward, swarming with musicians dressed for a sweaty, 1940s night of music. Casey MacGill rejoins his band, Gotham City Gates, as Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” rocks the house. The audience about dies of pleasure.

The opening moments of Swing! tell you all you need to understand. This big-hearted, irresistible show, unlike Susan Stroman’s Contact, makes no propositions about the redeeming power of dancing. It’s too busy showing you feet playing hardball with the beat and women vaulting onto their partners and getting slung between their legs. Rhythm stars—greasing the gears of love and friendship, liberating the shy, heartening the doughboys at the USO.

Paul Kelly, who’s credited with the concept, choreographer-director Lynn Taylor-Corbett, and production supervisor Jerry Zaks have turned a string of mostly great songs, new and classic, into a scenic journey through an optimistic world. Relationships and themes, reprised or skimmed past as background echoes, stitch things together. Clichés acquire a new polish. The sweet, uptight young soprano (wonderful Laura Benanti), finally schooled to snap her fingers on the 2 and the 4, yanks on her Alice-blue gown by William Ivey Long, and it flips down to reveal her costumed as a degree candidate in jazz sirendom. The partner receiving her scathing “Cry Me a River” is trombonist Steve Armour, who sweet-plays himself back into her heart. In the Ellington-Sid Kuller “Bli-Blip,” Everett Bradley and Ann Hampton Callaway strike up a friendship through a witty scat dialogue—the rich, taunting cream of their voices telling you how well matched they are. Callaway delivers—marvelously—some of the evening’s greatest songs: “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Blues in the Night,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” And Bradley, a big joyous man, lights up the stage every time he comes on.

Through it all wind the dancers: the rabid little lindyer (Geralyn Del Corso) who gradually wears down the “won’t dance” codger (Keith Lamelle Thomas), the chubby loser (Robert Royston) who blossoms in “Boogie Woogie Country” into a cowboy-hatted pro, twirling Laureen Baldovi like a lariat. The partners, including pair dancers who contribute their own choreography, are all terrific. I especially enjoyed Ryan Francois with spunky Jenny Thomas; Francois looks as if his joints are coming close to melting down inside his loose suit, but he’s never too mellow to nail that tickling beat.

** Rhythm that wriggles its way out through your limbs also preoccupies Jawole Willa Jo Zollar in her C# Street-Bb Avenue for the Ailey. “I live in music,” affirms Zollar’s voice on tape. Reciting words by Ntozake Shange that she used previously in a work for her own Urban Bush Women, Zollar sounds a bit smug—as if the rest of us aren’t hep enough to enter that musical neighborhood. The vibrant Ailey dancers, however, clearly deserve to stake out territory in the music by Michael Wimberly, Zollar, and David Murray (his “Picasso Suites”). It’s fun to see them cut loose in Zollar’s gutsy Afropop-jazz-modern dance mix after watching them be smooth and powerful in Ailey’s Streams and snap into strong, sharply outlined designs in company member Troy O’Neil Powell’s quartet Ascension. Zollar likes them wilder and freer and looser around the edges.

Zollar and Wimberly concoct some winning word-music images: “Sound falls round me like rain” and “I got 15 trumpets where other women got hips.” The splendid Matthew Rushing rockets around, chasing off one interested female after another to Wimberly’s fine “Thumb Piano and Drum Suite.” But one of the most compelling dance solos is performed by Clifton Brown in silence. I’d already admired his musicality in Ascension; he puts it to striking use for Zollar.

C# Street may not be a masterpiece, but it’s scrappy and unsentimental, full of life and color, and imaginative steps. It also shows off the dancers affectionately. The production underlines the color aspect vehemently (I wasn’t in love with the projected bars of music in Roma Flowers’s vivid lighting plot). Stefani Mar’s costumes, gradually layered on, turn the dancers into funky Harlequins.

One of C# Street‘s finest, Linda Denise-Evans, also brings a beautiful simplicity to Ailey’s great duet “Fix Me Jesus,” the heartbeat of Revelations.

** David Roussève may play a trembly, dry-voiced, old back-country black man in his Love Songs, but no folk strumming or spirituals accompany the tale he’s telling. He doesn’t spare us the appalling details in the love story of the slaves Sarah and John (Sarah’s master punishes her for running away by cutting off her left breast; she needs her hands and feet for work), but the story’s almost operatic in terms of fantastic elements and its characters’ heroism, persistence, and deathless, forbidden love. So why not elevate it into timelessness by playing Chopin, Schubert, Schuman, Puccini, and, above all, Wagner? While Sarah, near dying, crawls to John, who’s about to stab himself, we hear the “Liebestod,” and throughout the two-act dance-drama, Roussève alludes to plot elements of Tristan and Isolde. People don’t die; they travel to the kingdom of the night.

Roussève’s a postmodernist; you neither expect nor get straightforward narrative. In some of the most crucial moments, Charmaine Warren and Steven Washington play Sarah and John (both with tremendous emotional power). But, in fact, anyone—black or white, male or female—who puts on a blue shawl can be Sarah; a red shirt identifies John. There may be more than one of each. The story itself becomes a winding river into which Roussève dips, while also adventuring into tender, flowing dance passages and contemporary vignettes of desire and bondage. Terry Hollis urges gym buddy Kyle Sheldon to test his pecs for hardness; Sheldon doesn’t want to let go. Hooting with glee, Roussève and Hollis wrap Ilaan Egeland in toilet paper and draw “ideal” characteristics on her. Julie Tolentino Wood dresses the evidently dead Egeland in a new red dress and tries to get her to dance. Roussève, miraculously shifting identities and voices in midphrase, tells tales of love’s power; with no one to hold his hand, a person can shrivel away.

Roussève is a wonderfully clever writer, twisting words into a pungent, sophisticated poetry with a down-home twang. Love Songs (greatly enhanced by Beverly Emmons’s lighting, Debby Lee Cohen’s sets, and Carol Pelletier’s costumes) is so stunning so much of the time—harrowing, poignant, funny—that I yearn to see the excesses pruned away and the awkward places resolved in order that it may dig even deeper into the heart.

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