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Flash Review 2, 2-13: Diverse Discourse
Grimes, Kawai & Anderson Skirt the Boundaries

By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus

PHILADELPHIA -- It's cause for pride in Philly that the local dance scene is overflowing with diversity. Within it, several talented young black performers, some working with Rennie Harris PureMovement, make art that begins with hip-hop and street culture and goes way beyond. Among those is d. Sabela grimes, seen here on February 7 on a program with Roko Kawai and Charles O. Anderson, as part of DanceBoom at the Wilma Theater.

From the opening moment of grimes's "Forty Acres and a Microchip: Salvation or Servitude" we know we're watching a virtuoso. He's nearly still so we can check him out, looking like nothing so much as an updated African dancing forebear in a skirt and ankle ornaments of a rag-tag collection of strips of fabric and a red muscle shirt with medallion. A trail of black feathers are a shifting Mohawk on his shaved head. He starts in, surrounded by eye popping color in the light and his own clothes.

From the moment he moves his hands, with extended nails like a Balinese dancer, it's clear the guy can articulate the most isolated muscle of any part of his body loud and clear. He shivers, he trips over his own feet. Not one molecule of him is still, he's delicate and massive. He pops, he waves. Then he lopes, weaving his feet around each other. At one point he covers vast ground in a few easy bounds. Grimes's movement looks like something that happens to him, his eyes surprised at the wonder of it. He snakes, he collapses; he could never walk a straight line. His body slumps and he reconstructs it as he pushes it back out of the floor, away from gravity, reconstituting it again and again as if growing back out of the earth.

Meaning cues are everywhere in grimes's "Forty Acres" soundscore, which alternates between layered text and music fragments with eminently danceable funk. Images of oppression -- "How 'bout a good ole nigger work song" -- and fragments of field holler are shuffled with the whining tune of a modem singing its way onto the Internet. One rant repeats the theme of an African-American artist as commodity, coming to you "gift tagged." Here a loose weave of movement with meaning sits just fine.

Grimes drags a computer monitor from one end of the space to the other. The program notes refer to the computer as contemporary mule. Okay, from it he pulls earth which he shapes into a mound. Grimes fashions himself as a griot for the computer generation, channeling frustration, perplexity and dance fever. He points to the co-existence of ways of being -- fully in the computer age and fully in the dirt, being segmented and whole, being broken and reconstructed, inch by inch.

D. Sabela grimes is not an easy act to follow. Roko Kawai, as if to say "and now for something completely different," lets us feast our eyes on her diminutive purple kimono- clad form to begin "Improvisation in Kimono (Four)." She stands in silence before a vermilion and gold-leaf backdrop by Hiroshi Iwasaki, two stage-filling paintings really. She's in traditional Japanese garb with tabi sox and a gilded red obi. But what's that for a hairdo? Pigtails and spangly silver elastics! She starts small and silent, with tension in her hands and small shifty steps. All it takes is one deft jerk of the head for Kawai's pigtails to bounce and the audience to chuckle. The picture is humorous -- a small, bouncy creature, executing moves and postures from the traditional Japanese lexicon but always with a twist. There's a heady cleverness to how Kawai plays off the contained forms. Suddenly her hands slice with dexterous swiftness every which way, and she performs little jumps lifting off the ground -- whoever saw a Kabuki dancer do that?

Kawai looks out at us, the dancer aware of herself as tantalizing object and of the game she plays, stretching out of constraints. Suddenly, surprise, she's on the ground, on all fours, the world having tipped utterly sideways.

Kawai plays with silence, with non-doing. It demands an attention to detail on our part, a willingness to see how the stream of her discoveries flows onward. In silence she examines her obi (the wide swath of brocaded fabric that belts the kimono) and undoes it, beginning the unlayering of a surprising number of garments, which when neatly folded, form a line along the length of the proscenium. We hear her on tape recounting familial stories of the curious disjunctures of East and West. Down to skivvies, Kawai dons the clothes awaiting her at the end of the line of removed clothing -- they transform her into a trendy Westernized youth complete with bell bottoms and wedgies.

Having heard Kawai speak earlier about her ongoing studies of traditional Japanese dance, it's clear they're largely concerned with character and the exact way a given person of a given gender and rank would move. A walk isn't just a walk; it's the walk of a courtesan, of a noble prince or a gruff villager. And so the three main characters of Kawai's improvisation each have their own approaches to dancing. She goes from the contained lady breaking her bounds to the rocker playing with the traditional prop of an umbrella to her last character -- a post-modern mover with a Japanese ability to facet movements finely, to use the hand as a blade or to shift the eyes expressively. This is the clearest hybrid and a fine vehicle for Kawai's fluid inventive moving. There's something touching about watching the forms being undone, slipping out of the ties that bind. Kawai's rocker in a raincoat manipulates her traditional transparent umbrella with gentleness and subtlety but she's long past wanting to play any traditional roles.

Despite big movement, an ambitious unfolding scenario and color-splashed set and costumes, in the end I'm reminded of something small -- the paper mache tigers whose heads will bob at the slightest touch. You can hold them in your hand, they are loose and fun, and though they're a toy, they're crafted with great care.

The program notes for Charles O. Anderson's "Funky Suite: Body and Soul" state the choreographer's intent to make a tribute to black and gay culture and the forces of dance and music within them. There is rousing dance and propelling music. But Anderson is a curious character in his own work and the confusion of his role makes it difficult for this reviewer to fully enjoy the dynamism of his tribute.

"Funky Suite: Body and Soul" is brash and vivid. With washes of saturated color on the cyclorama and sumptuous copper-tinted costumes drawing inspiration from tribal dress by Heidi Barr, it's a rich picture. The ensemble of six powerful dancers (Elrey Casanova Belmonti, Sidney Johnson, Yaqshaan Abdul-Malik, Samuel Reyes, Michael Tindal, and Michael Velez), stripped to the waist, delivers big leaps and sweaty exertion, rhythmic stamps and African-derived moves along with the arcing sweeps of the leg and the shaped arms of modern dance. The performers reach and thrust, aspiring and proclaiming their own power. There's energy to burn.

Sometimes the dancers engage in brief allusions to fighting or flirtation -- a face-off, a hit, a look -- but nothing is fleshed out. The ensemble seems uncomplicated, shifting from unison dances to duets; pairs, canons -- it's by the book. Later 'show-off' solos delight the audience. There's live, driving percussion throughout and a mixed score on tape with snatches of provocative text. The sound score taunts "faggot," and says "If you're gonna tell me you're a fag I don't think I can handle it." Is this language where our sense of context for the piece is to come from? Is it what gives rise to Anderson's own role?

Anderson plays an outsider, set apart from all the other vibrancy onstage. He shakes. He walks the periphery of the space. While others dance with robust abandon he's shuffling, eyes downcast. He skulks in briefly from the wings as the most exhilarating dancing's onstage and disappears just as forlornly. I expect some kind of transformation to occur. There isn't one. Is Anderson hiding? Outcast? Nothing in the action brings real clarity. Anderson dances fully primarily for himself and never really joins in with the others. There's plenty of dance where a literal meaning is not the point. But if Anderson were not aiming at a literal narrative here, he'd have to go lighter on this characterization. The unfussiness of the ensemble dancing as compared with the heaviness of his own performance just doesn't jive.

I'd wish for Anderson to mine his material more deeply so that rather than pasting text or lyrics on a confusing stage picture, he'd communicate more fully through action. I'd wish for his group choreography to develop further subtlety, mirroring the complexity of actual relationships rather than the simplistic connections of all-too-familiar choreographic devices. All the same, the audience is thrilled, cheering for the display of physical prowess and dynamic spectacle. Curmudgeon that I am, I want more.

Lisa Kraus's web logs are "Decoy Among the Swans" and "Writing My Dancing Life." Lisa will teach this spring at Philadelphia Dance Projects and perform at Movement Research at Judson Church on March 29.

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