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Review 3, 10-27: From Many, One
Douglas, Dube and Wilson Mine and Combine Cultures
By Douglas Frank
Copyright 2003 Douglas Frank
NEW YORK -- Wouldn't
it be nice to take a long vacation with warm starry nights and people
of distinctly different cultures dancing and singing together everywhere
you go? Take off to the southern United States, travel to the beautiful
Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, and round out your trip
with an adventurous safari in Africa. Oh, you say you're time- and
money-impoverished? Then head to Dance Theater Workshop's Bessie
Schonberg Theater and take in "Black Burlesque (revisited)" -- where
you can experience all that and more in less than two hours. Working
together on an international scale, New York-based Reggie Wilson
/ Fist & Heel Performance Group, the world-famous a cappella singing
and dancing group from Zimbabwe, Black Umfolosi, and the Noble Douglas
Dance Company from Trinidad and Tobago took merely 10 years to get
to know each other, each culture and each people and -- voila! --
created a truly collaborative synthesis of disciplines and cultures
into one wonderful work that had its premiere last Wednesday.
The press release promises,
"The work brings to the stage vivid fragments from spiritual practice,
daily life, stories and culture. Traditional dance, including the
southern Africa gumboot and circle and line dances from the southern
U.S. and Caribbean are juxtaposed with contemporary dance and music
styles that accumulate and transform throughout the work's structure,"
and the piece delivers.
Hanging close to the
stage's back wall for the duration was Thabiso Phokompe's visual
backdrop, large sheets of fabric sewn together into one giant rectangle.
This flowingly graceful cloth at times reflected light and at others
became translucent to back lighting (designed by Tyler Micoleau
drawing on the colors of the fabrics). Two disco balls hanging over
the stage created abundant sparkling reflections like stars in the
In multi-colored costumes
designed by Adrienne McDonald, the work's first light was focused
on the feet of the performers moving in a circle, breaking out and
circling back. As noted in the program, these were indeed "performers"
-- well practiced in dancing and singing together. The program notes
would benefit greatly from some (any) detail about the recorded
music and the music and lyrics sung by the multi-talented troupe.
The work's "vivid fragments"
were carefully woven together. The performers crossed the stage
individually to an old, scratchy blues recording, each one looking
at the audience. The entire cast then emerged to "talk" and shake
hands with each other in a revolving, circular reception line, running
away in all directions while clapping their hands and leap-frogging
over each other.
The first African gumboot
segment was a showstopper. The four men of Black Umfolosi wore green
and red gumboots, bending over, arching up, percussively slapping
their hands on their boots, yelping and stomping and jumping while
other performers encircled them with modern dance vocabulary, raising
and extending their arms and legs. The gumboot performers were so
enthralling it was challenging to pay much attention to the rest
of the cast in the background.
In another segment,
three men laid down white dresses and sat beside them. Four women
entered individually and maintained their balance ever so carefully
as they tiptoed across the three dresses. One woman remained and
walked on the back of one man as the others left. Were the dresses
wedding gowns? Or representative of something else? This little
story engendered reflection and wonder about how elements of style
and culture evolve and transfer from their roots.
The spiritual Baptist
line could be heard frequently in solos and beautiful ensemble singing
in delicious harmonies. Included were the spirituals, "Adam in de
Garden Hidin' from de Lord" and "Jesus Is Real to Me" (under gorgeous
burnt-umber lighting) plus songs from Trinidad in Patois, and African
songs in Zulu dialects. The recorded music and live singing often
were connected with movements reflecting the texts -- even in clicking
Zulu dialects on the words (in English) "change" and "roll."
The fine performers
(all) were Rhetta Aleong, Paul Hamilton, Penelope Kalloo, Pene McCourty,
Reggie Wilson (Fist & Heel Performance Group); Charlene Harris,
Richard Lessey, Louanna Martin (Noble Douglas Dance Company); and
Thomeki Dube, Dumisani Ndlovu, Brian Sibanda and Clemence Sibanda
In a post-performance
discussion, Mr. Dube and Ms. Douglas agreed that their 10-year relationship
with Mr. Wilson had changed their lives. "Ten years of learning
from each other made me understand people differently," said Ms.
Douglas, who admitted to being "hesitant" at first about the project
as she was "modern trained and ballet trained." The title of the
program has "no literal connection to the work," said Mr. Wilson.
But the intimacy that the collaborators achieved was evident throughout,
seamlessly constructed and uniquely satisfying, letting you see
for miles and miles and hear songs and sounds from three corners
of the globe as if they were one -- which, of course, depending
on how you look at it, they are.
For more information
on "Black Burlesque (revisited)" please visit its
web site. For more information on Black Umfolosi, please
web page, where you can also hear a track of the group's
"Black Burlesque (revisited)"
continues through November 1 at Dance Theater Workshop. Please visit
web site for more information. Additional 2003 performance
dates include November 7 at Dance Theater Connecticut (Hartford);
November 9 at the Clarence Smith Performing Arts Center (College
Park, MD); November 14-16 at the Museum of Contemporary of Art (Chicago);
November 18 at the Williams Center for the Arts (Easton, PA); November
22 at the University of Arizona (Tucson); November 25 at the Mondavi
Center (Davis, CA); and December 5-6 at Miami-Dade Community College.
Douglas Frank is the executive and artistic director of the Douglas
Frank Chorale. For more information, please click
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