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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

Video Clip: 1.4 MB

While African-American 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 dynamo.

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 bones.

Philadanco continues at the Joyce through Sunday. For more info, visit the Joyce web site.

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