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Flash Review 1, 5-15: To Drink of Humanity
All Hail McKayle

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN JOSE, California -- The opening event for Bay Area Celebrates National Dance Week was held at the Metronome Ballroom, just a stone's throw from my house in San Francisco, on Friday, April 25. I joined in sampling the hors d'oeuvres and left the free hip hop class to those with less arthritic knees. Impossible to miss was the eminent Donald McKayle, named one of "America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures" by the Dance Heritage Coalition, as he waited to receive an award. McKayle has a quiet yet warm elegance about him. His gracious acceptance speech was marred by a very bad sound system. The following week I would be seeing the Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley in a tribute to him performing three of his works. Now I was happy to see that he was receiving honors from a local organization for his long career in dance, especially as the San Jose company has become one of several repositories for his works. (The others include Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Lula Washington Dance Theater, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company).

On Saturday, May 1, I make the trip to San Jose for the performance. In his speech introducing McKayle to the audience, artistic director Dennis Nahat calls him a "master humanitarian." McKayle takes the stage to speak about the genesis of "House of Tears." Originally commissioned in 1992 by the San Jose Cleveland Ballet (forerunner of the current Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley) this ballet shows the tyranny of the Argentine military junta from 1976 to 1983, and the campaign of the mothers of the "disappeared" who marched every week in the Plaza de Mayo. This is not some theoretical exercise, but a piece which grew out of McKayle's own experience in Buenos Aires, where he witnessed the marching of the "abuelas"(Spanish for grandmothers), heads covered by white kerchiefs as they relentlessly demanded to know what had become of their loved ones during "the process," a time when they had been abducted, possibly tortured and killed.

Astor Piazzolla"s "Concierto para Bandoneon" provides the perfect framework for "House of Tears" with its driving rhythms, sensuous melodies, and contrasting tenderness and roughness, reflecting all the contradictions of life in the land of tango. (See my review of Grupo Krapp.) The opening has three separate areas of action, showing individual stories of how loved ones were wrested from families, who then react to their losses. Watching the movement designs and emotional textures playing against each other is intriguing. The dancers, too, are so deeply invested in their roles that you cannot help but be riveted to them. In the second part the actual steps for "the Spirit of Argentina" seem a bit awkward, but Sayaka Tai moves admirably well. The Women of the Plaza de Mayo also dance with energy, power and a strong sense of ensemble. In the final section the choreography becomes a dialogue between the dancers and builds to an intense climax. Only the ghosts of the missing people seem a bit out of place as they are costumed in white and they dance along with everyone else. Perhaps if they were more ethereal and removed from the action I would feel they were appropriate. Mostly I am grateful for having the chance to see a work with substance and meaning.

The second piece of the evening is "Death and Eros," the first of a projected series called "Story Dance Theater," dealing with the folklore of indigenous people. It is based on an Inuit legend about "Skeleton Woman," who is the spirit of a young woman who was thrown into the sea by her father for committing some act against the mores and beliefs of her people. Her bones are hooked by a young fisherman and she then pursues him home where he manages to arrange her bones properly, whereupon she regains her flesh and hair after licking up his tears. The commissioned music by Jon Magnussen is a potpourri of too many elements -- Inuit music, natural sounds and electronically modified material. Simplicity would have served the piece far better. The costumes by Madeline Kozlowski for the dancers who are "Sea" and the soloist "Storm" were too tinselly, though the Skeleton Woman's 3-D bones on black are very ingenious. The choreography for the storm is oddly quite static and small. I could imagine the storm swirling across the stage, but instead the four dancers tend to stay in their own small circles and move quickly without going anywhere. McKayle could have explored the possibilities of the two invisible partners manipulating the Skeleton Woman even more, maybe during the storm and while being reeled in, as well as in the fisherman's hut.

The high-spirited "District Storyville" closes the evening. An early work from 1962 from his own Donald McKayle and Company, it is very reminiscent of Alvin Ailey's work from the same time period. The place is New Orleans, the time is the beginning of the 20th century and the reasons are to show the now vanished Storyville, a legal red-light district and the birth of jazz. Tiffany Glenn and Willie Anderson as Sugar Lover and Willie the Pleaser are outstanding. The rest of the company performs with quite a flair behind them.

What a relief and a joy to see a program of dance works which aspire to more than pure entertainment, or, at the very most, illustrating an abstract idea. After an evening of premieres at the San Francisco Ballet, to see three pieces by Donald McKayle at the Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley two night later certainly helped to reassure me that art can be more than an exercise in personal creativity; it can also reflect the world we live in.

The real question is as always quantity versus quality. Yes, other irreplaceable dance icons include George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris and Alvin Ailey. All of their works are not created equal, even within each choreographer's own body of dances. The issue of quality actually has several facets: craftsmanship, originality, musicality, the ability to successfully convey an abstract idea or reveal new insight into a political or social situation. However perfect an abstract piece might be, personally I need to feel a link to the common humanness shared between choreographer, dancers and audience. The age old philosophic conundrum raises its head. What is art? And what is it supposed to do? (See my review of Momix.)

Donald McKayle's "Angelitos Negros/Nocturne" will be performed tonight through Saturday at and by the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique In Paris, on a program with Balanchine's "Valse Fantaisie," William Forsythe's "New Sleep," and other works. For more information, in Paris please call 01-40-40-46-46.

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