to the Boogie that Be,
Concert” at the Jack Guidone Theater
I wonder if General Electric has gotten wind of Maurice Johnson. The hard-working hoofer generated enough kinetic heat to power the Jack Guidone Theater through the coming blustery winter months. He also provided the only electric physicality to witness at Joy of Motion Dance Center’s “Anniversary Concert,” single-handedly conditioning the audience’s attention at his will.
Would that his choreographic contribution to the evening’s festivities were as captivating as his execution. As it unfolded, “Revelation,” danced to music by the hip-hop artist L.L. Cool J, revealed itself as derivative—which was disappointing because it opened with enigmatic promise. Mr. Johnson and his (it would seem, backup) dancers appeared onstage in loose, black hooded sweatshirts. They silently leaned forward as an ensemble, arching their backs and rolling their arms out at their sides. Resembling a murder of crows, the crew dipped the droopy appendages and raised them again, making supple wingspans.
But once the music cranked up, they shed the cloaks and what transpired was less interesting. They bounced around, making staccato revolutions with their hips, and stabbing their elbows back and forth. What started out like a congregation of druids gone hip-hop ended with the repetitive posturing of any handful of music videos on MTV. The rhythm and blues performer Usher has found innovative ways to chart this familiar territory. And the tap-dancing wunderkind Savion Glover successfully merged the formal tattoos pioneered by Fred Astaire with the more muscular articulations of Funk. Mr. Johnson did not demonstrate comparable vision. He did, however, transcend the steps when he danced them. After every athletic twist into and out of gravity-defying crouches, it was difficult not to be in his thrall. He made rapture out of the rap.
Second on the bill was a lovely, albeit twee, solo devised and performed by Tommy Parlon. The peculiarly titled “Saltwater” was filled with fluid pirouettes and lilting swivels that didn’t lead anywhere in particular. Mr. Parlon looked like a figure skater in search of a partner as he scooped his arms around, only to have the phantasm dematerialize within his reach. He hopped and somersaulted gingerly before stopping short and letting out an audible breath. It was either of the gasp or the sigh variety; each let the crowd finish the work for him: did he accept the fact that he will remain alone, or did the elusive partner finally make a surprise appearance?
“Naughty and Nice,” an ensemble number of varying modulations, was an audience-rousing hit that unfortunately suggested, above all else, talent show. Along with Jam Crew’s similar piece called “Chiaroscuro,” Juliana Calderon and the Expansion Dance Project’s additions never found a locus to center on. Both dances evoked the street-smart body language that recent films like “You Got Served” have made palatable for broader audiences. But neither took the time to make the works accessible to anyone other than the people performing the gymnastic gyrations. What came across as an attention-getting mode of movement felt insular, like a house party that everyone has been invited to but you.
The Silk Road Dance Company unveiled “Arabesque,” an Egyptian Sharqi (“dance of the East”) inspired by the Russian ballet techniques. This brought to mind the exotic and the sensual, cross-pollinated with imperial sweep. But as retooled by Laurel Victoria Gray, “Arabesque” seemed to have lost something in the crossing. Pitched as a dance whose lineage can be traced to the opening of the Casino Opera—a Cairo nightclub whose interest spiked in the 1920s—it felt damagingly westernized, a gaudy bauble akin to something one might catch at a Las Vegas floor show. The six dazzling loreleis rotating their hips still cast a transfixing spell, making the most out of choreography that, in spite of its roots, felt as synthetic and watered-down as Rakiset Klaribel’s music.
The most puzzling work of the night was “Heat of the Jungle,” performed by CrossCurrents Dance Company. Four women dressed in bright, earthy tones frolicked across the stage, pointing their legs outward, and making things generally difficult for the man in black, played by Donnie Walker. I can only surmise that he represented a human (the dark, tailored costume) and the women, jungle cats. It was nothing particularly new, the only surprise being the reversal during the final moments: the “animals” surrounded their “tamer,” going in for the kill.
The Swedish dancer Ulrika Frank tried her hand at Flamenco with “Liviana,” a churning, deliberate piece that gained momentum as its personality came into focus. Miguel Poveda’s plodding score (comprised of guitars and almost lugubrious vocals) never gave Ms. Frank proper support; when she finally was able to make music with her feet, “Liviana” took off, and the dancer acquired a spicy attitude which belied the majority of her performance. Flamenco dancing is fueled by the fiery engines of the heart, and is most effective when carried out feverishly, not flashily.
Rounding out the “Anniversary Concert” was Douglas Yeuell’s “Jazz Study #5,” an agreeable, bouncy work that proved as charming a finale as any. Mr. Yeuell and his quad of fellow dancers looked genuinely jolly onstage, spinning their limbs, rolling their shoulders and kicking their heels. All wore primary-colored warm ups, the ladies pulled their hair up into sloppy ponytails. The effect was more like watching a jazz class at STEPS on Broadway than an actual finished piece. But it was full of pith and vigor, and never let up in terms of the happiness factor.
But nothing on the mixed bill boasted the seemingly limitless centrifugal force of Mr. Johnson. He was a perpetual motion machine, relentless but always in control. One might assume it was the southern region of his anatomy that kept things revved-up. And his hips more than testified on this theory. But it was his heart that afforded his body, his fellow dancers and the audience at large, the opportunity to feel what these talented few in performance do on a regular basis. As interpreted by him, dance has less to do with finding rhythm in the feet, and more with discovering the pulse from within. You might call it the boogie that be.