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Flash Review 1, 6-21:
Black Trek, Generations
Philadanco Stands on Big Shoulders
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
Clip: 1.4 MB
choreographers and companies are always uniquely careful to give
'nuff respect to the ancestors, it's rare to see such a wide span
of them referenced in one evening as was paid tribute to last night
at the Joyce Theater, where Philadanco presented the New York premiere
of the four-choreographer evening, "On the Shoulders of Our Ancestors."
From La Dunham through Club Dance circa 2000, it was all there,
mostly ably and entirely energetically represented by this vervacious
and vibrant company of veteran dancers, in choreography which accurately
sampled the past even tho it wasn't always to the liking of my palette.
The history lessons themselves
seemed a little too A-B-C Order for a dance-hip New York audience,
although on the other hand, I do know enough people that haven't
heard of Katherine Dunham. Still, I would have been sated just to
see the photographs, from the collection of the fabled Joe Nash
and from S'thembile West, flashing across the screen, and then judge
the dances on their own terms. But ladled on top of this fascinating
montage were a pedantic, wooden narration (by Sarah Conway and the
evening's director/conceiver Harold Pierson) and interviews with
the contemporary choreographers which, while often interesting,
seemed like kind of a cheat sheet. Would we have guessed at a Martha
Graham-Alvin Ailey heritage to David Brown's "Labesse II," for example,
without his funny anecdotes about the two which preceded the dance?
Would we have seen the Eleo Pomare in Ronald K. Brown's "Gate Keepers"
if he hadn't dropped that name on us first?
The most intriguing dance
of the evening for me, curio-wise, was the offering from Walter
Nicks, who worked close to Dunham for many years and so, natch,
brought us the Diaspora -- sort of. The music was there -- African,
Haitian-sounding, Brazilian -- as well as what seemed to my non-specialist
eyes to be matching costumes, but the movement didn't always strictly
match the milieu of the music. BUT, what's intriguing is that each
of these components was interesting in and of itself, they were
just almost two different dances or streams. Standing out here were
Gabriele Tesfa Guma's fluid hips in the Latinesque section, "Regla-Oriente"
(everyone else seemed to move a bit stiffly here, particularly the
men) and a shaman-o-shaman match pitting the scarlet-resplendent
Guma agin' Curtis C. Glover's trickster in what seemed to me a more
Afro-Haitian ritual, or at least a riff on same. In fact, speaking
of red resplendent, A. Christina Giannini (still wondering what
that A. stands for, any takers?)'s dazzling costumes seemed the
most Afro-Diaspora specific element of this piece. I'm not knocking
the dance here, just commenting; if Dunham herself filtered the
source culture through an almost ballet framing device, Nicks has
gone even more diffuse. (Note: My non-dancer companion liked the
way Nicks himself, seen on film teaching the dance to the Philadankins,
moved with a wavey torso evoking an African blade of grass.)
Preceding his "Echoes:
A Celebration of Alvin Ailey," Milton Myers said on film (video
by Carmella Vassor) that he aimed to celebrate both Ailey and Joyce
Trisler, an Ailey influencer of whose company Myers was a founding
member. All I know of Trisler, I must confess, is Ailey's own tribute
to her, "Memoria," and in this dance I recognized the sweeping dresses
and uplifting legs of Ailey's elegy, as well as the arms and other
upper body inflections, arching backs, curved torsos, and male-female
supportive relationships of Ailey. Myers's music was what sounded
like John Adams's "Symmetries," which at first caused me to cringe.
This was great music the first time I heard it and, more important,
saw the breathless dance Mark Dendy created to it on Pacific Northwest
Ballet. It turned limpid in Peter Martins's "Fearful Symmetries"
on New York City Ballet. (Er, see Alicia Mosier's Flash
Review 2, 6-21: A Little Hokum, a Little Magic, for a contrasting
point of view.)
Here, however, there
was a new twist which uncringed me. The dancers almost performed
this unremittingly allegro music with an adagio relish, savoring
and very clearly articulating every single phrase; proof again that
dynamism and speed don't have to require sacrificing nuance.
I rapped David Brown's
work in my review of the recent Monte-Brown season (Flash
Review 1, 5-17: Adults, Dancing), but seeing him adapt his "Labess"
for Philadanco, I remembered that, hey, regarding Brown's ambitious
music choices, when he does hit the music, man, does he hit it!
This was an exquisite dance that, more than anything, seemed about
relationships: A large group together and, in one section that was
as intimate as it was fleet, individual relationships, as manifest
not just in an incredible variety of ways to lift and catch, but
the very manner in which the dancers touched each other. Stand-outs
here were Willa-Noel Montague, who made an exquisite, totally in
character, ever-so-slightly exit and was captivating whenever she
took center stage, head slightly down, focus on the back of the
theater; and veteran Hope L. Boykin, a dynamo to rival any company's
So, let's regroup: We
started with the Afro-Anthropological ancestors; then on to the
50s-60s-70s pillars; then into the '90s with David Brown. There
was definitely a scheme here, and it's a fair guess Ronald K. Brown
was meant to represent, and maybe even Represent, this millenium.
Here's where the evening
lost me, tho, craft-wise. To be fair, my non-dancer companion was
absolutely awed by RK Brown's "Gate Keepers," saying she'd never
seen anything like it. Me, I have seen things like it, in the dance
clubs. I'd love it there--and don't get me wrong, the dancers' execution
here was thrilling, especially by stalwart Kim Y. Bears -- but sitting
in a theater, all I could think is, from where I sit, this ain't
concert dance. To my mind, the only thing it represents is in fact
a dangerous trend of some makers of dance for African American companies
away from story, and to a vernacular whose only tale is not of the
connection to the bones of ancestors, but the connections between
at the Joyce through Sunday. For more info, visit the
Joyce web site.
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