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Flash Review 1, 9-11: Sanctified
Robinson & Co. Give Mary Lou a Mass

By Janine Gastineau
Copyright 2000 Janine Gastineau

DENVER -- Throughout most of the dance season, the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble makes its home in a former church -- the historic Shorter AME, now the CPRD Theatre. But on Friday, two major events, CPRDE's 30th anniversary and the unveiling of a major new work, moved things downtown. There, the tables were turned, and for an evening, the theater -- the immense Buell in the Denver Center -- became the church. The occasion: the second-ever dance performance of the Vatican-commissioned "Mass for Peace," retitled "Mary Lou's Mass," a celebration of both jazz and Catholicism by the masterful composer Mary Lou Williams. Originally choreographed to in 1971 by Alvin Ailey, it had not been danced since, until this weekend.

Robinson and Williams met by chance in 1979, found an immediate connection, and Williams said, "We should work together!" But she passed away before that dream could be realized. Years later, Robinson was approached by Canto Spirits director Vicki Burrichter, who hoped to collaborate on the Mass with Robinson. But instead of the nine pieces Ailey had set, she was offering 23. Robinson took it and ran -- and the result is immense, musically pristine, and largely beautiful. Acclaimed jazz pianist Geri Allen and the exquisite songstress Carmen Bundy (supported by a local jazz sextet) shared the boards with chorus and dancers.

Red, green and white lights cast on side walls and cyclorama of the 1000+ seat Buell transformed the ultra-modern space into a cathedral, with an enormous wooden cross hung upstage center over a large white ramp that led downstage. Two smaller ramps branched off to the left and right, while banks of lit votive flanked each side. The chorus -- the congregation -- wore black, with red or green shawls draped on top. Allen wore red, Lundy, a killer black velvet gown. (Responsible parties include Lara Kirksey, costumes, Josh Psuik, sets and Keith Rice, lights.)

Robinson's take on "Mary Lou's Mass" differs in more than just length from the Ailey version. Most significant are the creation of real-life and symbolic characters, some appearing briefly, others a near-constant presence. Williams composed her mass from 1959 - 1970, so two characters reflect those years and times: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. "I Have A Dream" introduces them, albeit a bit literally -- with Dr. King dancing somewhat lyrically, and Malcolm X raising his fist repeatedly. Their duet, "Tell Him Not to Talk Too Long," grows more interesting: They partner each other, but often back to back, twisting themselves into positions that feel awkward yet oddly sensible, mirroring their respective struggles, their tragic deaths.

Two sections seem too few for these larger-than-life figures. This also applies to the third, Mary Lou herself, danced by a CPRDE veteran, the wondrous Marceline Freeman. I thought the idea of having this character was a good one, but was surprised to see her used so little throughout the Mass. Many moments and phrases begin, develope, then are over all too soon, and I wondered more than once what exactly Robinson was trying to communicate by creating her. As Williams, Freeman is terrific. Her moments of stillness are full of activity, and her steely body and sweet countenance communicate volumes, especially at the end of the all-too-brief "Act of Contrition," which ends with Freeman seated on a bench, head slightly bowed, eyes upward, poised, waiting, seeming unsure of her worthiness, of being forgiven.

Freeman, a 28-year veteran and 'the rock' of the ensemble, remains at the top of her game technically and expressively, and it is such a treat to behold this mature artist performing, that I left feeling a bit unsatisfied. I kept waiting for the long breakout solo that never came, that would reveal more about Mary Lou and her struggles. Williams performed through every jazz era of the 20th century, yet received less acclaim than her male counterparts, being a woman in the male-dominated jazz world. She quit performing entirely in the mid-fifties, not touching a piano or listening to records for years as she embarked upon a spiritual quest. She embraced the Catholic church and spent years serving others, especially down-and-out musicians and at-risk children, before returning to composing. I was hoping that more of this journey could be reflected in the choreography.

The entire ensemble danced well -- with largesse, with heart -- bounding upward in spirited jumps and swirling circles that filled the stage, arms outstretched, faces lifted to the light. Newer personnel surprised me more than once. Ensemble apprentice Jacob Mora appeared as the priest, and danced like a house on fire, especially at the end of Act I, in "The Apostle's Creed" where he practically trucks up the ramp, his back to us, shoulders and hips rolling. The curtain fell slowly while he danced on.

Act II begins with a second resurrection scene, the music honoring St. Martin de Porres, "The Black Christ of the Andes." The Holy Trinity dances in "Our Father," joined by the Virgin Mary in "Pater Noster." But the evening peaks with the next-to-last "Thank you Jesus." Freeman, standing on a downstage center bench, dances to the wave of brightly dressed dancers before her -- who appear first in groups of four at other benches, then as one solid wall of undulating groovers and shakers. This number, next to last, is the most exuberant and the most memorable.

Overall, this work is one of Robinson's strongest choreographic efforts. "Mary Lou's Mass" also continues in the vein Robinson has returned to time and again throughout her dancemaking career: the intersection of faith and art. This place is where her most heartfelt and successful dances are born.

Other notable performances were offered by Carlos Dos Santos Jr., Susan Richardson, SIobhain Mosley, Randy Brooks, Brigette Dunn and Ann Whitbeck. They led us to mass, where we got a solid dose of church, then left feeling sanctified!

 

Janine Gastineau is a Denver-based correspondent for Dance Magazine, and also writes for the New York Times. She is currently at work on a biography of Vera Ellen.

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