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Flash Review 2, 1-28: Viva la Diva!
Oliver Delivers the Icons

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2003 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- As we enter Dance Theater Workshop's Bessie Schonberg Theater, eight oval panels glow from the dark at the rear of the stage. They depict women of color in delicately detailed wood-cut prints by Erin Tapley. The icons -- unified in theme and size, although drawn in slightly different abstracted styles -- remind you of stained glass windows in, perhaps, an ultra-hip southern country church.

Cynthia Oliver's new "AfroSocialiteLifeDiva," part of DTW's Carnival Series, is a stream-of-consciousness evocation in eloquent words and delicious movement of generations of black women. The text, brilliantly devised and deconstructed by Oliver is profuse and continuous, sometimes so rich with imagery and idiom you just have to let it go and enjoy its flavor without trying to comprehend it.

Five women enter in silhouette, one alone and the other four in couples, one partner carrying the other. Dancing in beautifully crafted unison and counterpoint, they take turns verbally describing and physically impersonating members of an extended family of women. They're dressed in Adrienne McDonald's form-flattering, multi-textured, earth-toned clothes: shawl skirts over slacks with fitted tops.

Oliver, a tall and substantial earth mother with sharp features and caramel-colored skin, and Renee Redding-Jones, more sturdily built and even more nurturing with rich coffee-complexion, are such powerful stage personas they constantly arrest your focus. Their every move embodies the experience of living as triumphant black women. While the other three, Blossom Leilani, Maria Earle, and Cynthia Bueschel, all younger women, are no slouches in either vocal projection or dancing ability, they can't match the sassy, savvy presence of the more mature pair.

In one recurring motif, the women tiptoe around, as if wearing too-tight high-heels, hands dangling from limp-wrists, hips switching proudly from side to side, over-talking each other about their diva-like assets. Music composed and performed live by percussionist Jason Finkelman, guitarist/composer Geoff Gersh, and Charles Cohen on an electronic synthesizer called the Buchla Music Easel, add color and texture to the women's flamboyant action.

These are utterly empowered women, recalling their role models: Redding-Jones is "Nana" gesturing and grinning cordially like a fine lady at a cocktail party or a church social. Buescshel and Earle wield dainty purses and cavort with "attitude" in "A Holy Roller Named Pimp." In an arch and funny monologue, Oliver recounts her mother's admonitions about proper behavior for a lady: Poise. Etiquette. Stand with feet at right angles, hands on hips, and breasts thrust forward to create the most provocative esthetic impact; keep your knees decorously together whenever you sit. She and the cast illustrate with over-the-top exaggeration.

A similar dynamic tone throughout the seven continuous sections of the fifty-minute work mutes its overall impact. Still, "AfroSocialiteLifeDiva" is a wittily written, soulfully performed exposition of womanhood, distilled through the prism of Oliver's unique sensitivity. And the performances of Oliver and Redding-Jones are definitely not to be missed. The piece will be repeated at DTW on February 1 and 2. For more information, please click here.

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