A well-intentioned festival united dancers from seven companies in “spiritual works” from 12 choreographers, beginning with an invitation from artistic director Danielle Deveaux Greer to “eavesdrop on our conversations with the Father.” Unfortunately, not all the dancers started the evening ready to be heard. In Greer’s Going Home, about African Americans’ search for a “resting place” in the afterlife, the movement fell flat: Where arms stretched to the heavens, gazes did not follow; where torsos twisted upward, eyes were directed down. In Robin Williams’s Spiritual Suite, for a contingent of hyper-talented Uptown Dance Academy students, and in Katie Woodburn’s Psalm 30–inspired An Offering, it was all about the eyes; here they were sweet but glazed over, like bonbons in a store window. And when these dancers weren’t tiptoeing around the artificially sweetened choreography, there were enough glitches in the sound system to assure us that this was shaping up to be one awkward affair.
Admittedly, topics of spirituality make for tough and often touchy communication (although Greer made it clear that “Father” does not necessarily refer to The One Who Art in Heaven; she used it as an umbrella term for all worship-worthy beings). And by the second half of the program, the dancers were rising to the occasion. With spirit bristling on their sleeves, three men from Vissi Dance Theatre offered muscled metaphors for crucifixion and lynching (excerpted from Courtney Ffrench’s recent Amazing Grace); then Shani Borden, Wayne Daniels, and Michelle Smith of Balance Dance Co. closed—and stole—the show with The Guardians, an intensely visceral work that channeled energy from the dancers’ souls through their veins and finally out through their mouths. Their shouts—at once anguished and exhilarated—reminded us of religion’s capacity to inspire art as well as war. And these are certainly conversations worth having.