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Flash Review 1, 2-27: Can Love Grow from Death?
Harlem Answers: Betcha By Golly Wow!

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

HARLEM, U.S.A. -- The untold story of the AIDS virus, which we in the arts world most know as a syndrome that has robbed us of some of our best and brightest, is that the war against it has bred some of the most transcendent artistic enterprises this and the last century have produced. From the AIDS Quilt to "Angels in America" to "RENT" -- is there really a dance on the level of these? -- much as a generation has been decimated by AIDS, it has also been provoked by it to create art that, notwithstanding that it is prompted by a late twentieth century plague, is as universal as it is timeless. Last night at the Apollo Theater in the re-renaissancing Harlem, two organizations founded to fight this pandemic -- Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (the parent organization of Dancers Responding to AIDS) and Harlem United turned out a stunning array of devastating diva and dance dynamite, and one ex-president, to raise $250,000 for the cause.

"Our goal was to raise $100,000 for Harlem United, and we surpassed that," said Hernando Cortez, who, with fellow former Paul Taylor dancer Denise Roberts Hurlin, co-founded DRA. "Harlem United has no donor base, so this was crucial," said Roberts. The proceeds of last night's Broadway Celebrates the Spirit of Harlem event will be split between Broadway Cares and Harlem United.

So overwhelming was the charisma oozing from the stage of the legendary Apollo that the appearance of former president and new neighbor Bill Clinton in the audience of the ramshackle resplendence that is this theater, while generating much pre-show excitement and autograph-seeking, was quickly eclipsed and forgotten, as Clinton became just one more awe-struck adulant of the heart and soul and vocal and dance chops being paraded across the stage.

The evening's drop-dead performance was given by Jennifer Holliday, who broke my heart with a rendition of her signature torch (inferno?) song "And I am Telling You I'm Not Going" which started even before Holliday appeared on the stage. And when she did, it was as an apparition of a body and soul wracked by love and longing and imminent loss, her back hunched as if her whole being was being dragged into the earth, she struggling to keep herself from falling by beseeching the man who was getting away. As Holliday pointed accusingly into the audience, I could swear I saw several men ducking, and as many prepare to leap onto the stage.

When it comes to pure dance spirit, last night's award has to go to the eighty-something Silver Belles ensemble, in a smoove number choreographed by 90-something Geraldine Rhodes Kennedy. Best supporting dancers award goes to a crew of Noise/Funk alumni including the laconic Baakari Wilder, the velvety Jason Samuels, and the fleetly fluid and feather-footed Karen Calloway Williams. What I loved was how the youngsters, arrayed behind the "veterans," let the ancestors set the pace, even to the point of giving them props by finding their cues in the elders' feet. 'Nuff respect!

Another surprise for this dance insider was revealed after the show by Caroline Rocher, the Dance Theatre of Harlem diva -- that's a compliment -- who appeared in Robert Garland's "Mother Popcorn," to the Godfather of Soul's song of the same name. (Starring roles in the excerpt were taken by Paunika Jones and Donald Williams, with the ensemble completed by Tanya Wideman, Lenore Pavlakos, Kellye A. Saunders, Lynda Sing, Kevin Thomas, Kip Sturm, Mark Burns, Orlando Pagan, and Preston Dugger.) Later, when I complimented her on her appearance in the lead in "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" when the Balanchine ballet was given by DTH and New York City Ballet last spring, the radiant Rocher answered, in all earnestness, "It makes me happy to make people happy." I don't think this bon homme is fake; at last night's after-party at the Magic Johnson theaters, Rocher, Sing, Burns and friends could not stop dancing, getting down to the drum 'n' sax sounds of the Jazz Beatniks. Oh and...er, what's the surprise? The surprise was that, while I'd assumed Ms. Rocher had been coached before her debut as the Siren in Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" by Suzanne Farrell two years ago, I was wrong; DTH director Arthur Mitchell had done the instruction. It was still a difficult challenge, Rocher explained, as training in her native France she had not had much exposure to the ways of Balanchine. Could have fooled me!

And speaking of me as fool, I was a fool to be blind previously to the mesmerizing and transcending power of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence. For its contribution to the evening, RKB/E performed an excerpt from "High Life," a work set to music by, among others, Fela Anikulapo Kuti. The selection of a work to Fela's music in an AIDS fundraiser has a bittersweet irony. The late great Nigerian Afro-Pop singer, who engaged in a quite promiscuous lifestyle, denied to the end that he had AIDS, a denial which, one might argue, is an unhealthy legacy to the Nigerian youth who still idolize him -- and his lifestyle. (Props to the RKB/E dancers: Princess Mhoon, Bridget Moore, Diedre Nyota Dawkins, Telly Fowler, Arcell Cabuag, Daryl Spiers, and Brown.)

And while we're in Africa, those far-away relatives were not forgotten last night in the capital of Black U.S.A.: Before the Afro-rich presentation (complete with divas trilling inna African stylee) by company members of the Afro-Disney smash "The Lion King," co-host with the co-most Maurice Hines (abetted and sometimes restrained during the evening by a hook-wielding Phylicia Rashad) pointed out that of the approximately $800,000 raised by "The Lion King" to combat AIDS, about $100,000 had gone directly to local AIDS charities in South Africa, grass-roots organizations specifically identified by South African cast members of the four-year-old Broadway hit. With the requisite flips and still shocking kicks up over the head, plus a softer, white-gowned balladic section, this crew did indeed transport the audience back to Africa. Props here go to dancers Stephanie Battle, Kelly Boyd, Iresol Cardona, Jerry Clicquot, Dameka Hayes, Tony James, Sduduzo Ka-Mbili, Aste Moore, Sifiso Mtheethwa, Ashi K. Smythe, and Charmaine Trotman, as well as singers Sophina Brown, Tracy Chapman, Lindiwe Dlamini, Ngomb'khona Ngema, Lindiwe Hlengwa, Charles Holt, Vanessa Jones, Ron Kunene, Anthony Manough, Phillip McMcadoo, Nhlanahla Negema, and Rema Webb. The segment was choreographed by Smithe, Ka-Mbili, and Ngema.

The older but no less fresh off-Broadway hit, "Stomp," was representing by Maria Breyer, Morris Anthony, Chris Nastasi, Mindy Haywood, Peter-Michael Marino, Keith "Wild Child" Middleton, Raymond Poitier, Henry Shead, and Sheilynn Wactor. This ensemble provided a syncopated symphony of sweep (hey, it's late!), turning industrial brooms into the sonic rivals of Capezio taps.

If I can be permitted one frank reviewer's gripe, it surfaced with "Cry," the evening's penultimate performance. My quarrel is not with the performer -- indeed, Nasha Thomas-Schmitt is my favorite actress-dancer in this Alvin Ailey tour-de-force paean for black mothers everywhere. Rather, this is a piece that builds, and it's built on three song segments. They progress from heavy burden to liberated free-at-last exultation. But it seems to have become acceptable gala fare to give us just the rousing conclusion -- even tho without seeing what comes before, it loses much of its emotional oomph. That oomph was further diluted when, inexplicably, as if it weren't enough that this segment was already a third of its original length, Thomas was not even finished, indeed was just beginning to sore, when a group of mostly dour members of the Broadway Inspirational Voices started filtering on.

But this is just the small quibble of a dance die-hard who hasn't gotten any of Ms. Thomas-Schmittt since she retired from the Ailey in 1997, and was hoping to see more. Or maybe the strainings of a cranky dance die-hard. As it's now 3:30 in the a.m. -- hey, I had to stay uptown to check the after-party so that I could interview Ms. Rocher and collar Cortez for the hard $$ facts, dance insider, and I had to have that hazelnut Martini from Long Island's own Peconika to screw up the courage to approach Ms. Rocher -- I'll finish up with more positives. In a roster of diva singers almost too numerous too mention, other stand-outs were Marva Hicks singing "Stormy Weather," and, of course, Harolyn Blackwell, who gave a "Summertime" that was operatic at the same time as it was dialectic. On the male side, the show-stopper on the quiet tip was Jubilant Sykes, mournfully longing for a city called "Heaven," and Three Mo' Tenors, who started with a bit from "Rigoletto" before going soul train on us with a mighty-mighty medley including the O'Jays' "Love Train" (Get on board y'all!) and a telling of "Midnight Train to Georgia" in which they not only flawlessly played the Pips parts, but paused in between for an imaginary Gladys.

....And in between found time for the Stylistics, which had the ladies in the house screaming, and gentlemen like me singing along, trying to re-capture their lost youth, even as the event was trying to re-capture the future for a community and indeed a people decimated by this horrible disease. Much as the presence of the relaxed Clinton was so appreciated that no one seemed to notice the 20 Secret Service agents in the house, I couldn't help but wonder: What if our current president was in the house? Would he still close his eyes (relatively speaking) to AIDS, carelessly letting his aides speak of closing the U.S. AIDS office? Or would he see the thousand-plus points of light in the Apollo, the love emanating from Black America's stars, returned to Harlem, returned to the Apollo of Hines's youth (where, as he recounted, he and brother Gregory, 5 and 7 respectively, would watch four shows in a day, sneaking a row closer for each show to see the Nicholas Brothers, finally realizing that those were not special effects, and telling each other, "We can't do that"), returned to give something back? And would he want to give as well?

Betcha by golly wow!

...4 in the a.m. here and, um, are there more props to give? Betcha by golly wow! Too numerous to list all? Betcha by golly wow! Then how bout to director Mercedes Ellington and stage managers Lisa Dawn Cave, Alison Schwartz, and Bernita Robinson, for corralling all that diva talent on one famous stage, and for publicist Christina Head of the estimable Ellen Jacobs Associates for helping to make sure there was a crowd there to appreciate the effort.

Betcha by golly wow!


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