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Flash 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 sky.

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 (Black Umfolosi).

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 visit its web page, where you can also hear a track of the group's music.

"Black Burlesque (revisited)" continues through November 1 at Dance Theater Workshop. Please visit DTW's 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 here

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