writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Where's the Soul?

Black Expressions
Jan. 23, 2004, Lincoln Theatre, Washington, DC
Mason/Rhynes Productions, Inc. and Lincoln Theatre
Choreography by: Jennifer Archibald, Christal Brown, Shani Collins, Sandra Holloway, Gesel Mason, Boris Willis

by Lisa Traiger
copyright © 2004 by Lisa Traiger

I had a values clash Friday night. As I sat there in row Z of the Lincoln Theatre waiting for the programs (which didn't arrive until midway into the evening's second piece), waiting the show to begin (15 minutes late with more latecomers filtering in well after that), looking around at the gathering crowd (an insider's audience of friends and friends-of-friends), I silently congratulated the producers of this venture for drawing a youthful and well-heeled crowd downtown to a theater not known for its dance offerings on a frigid January night.

But I was miffed, mostly because of the lack of programs, but also because I rushed downtown from the northern suburbs to arrive on time and I was waiting. But Black Expressions, the evening of contemporary African American dance works presented by youthful producer Mason/Rhynes Productions and the Lincoln Theater , was a celebratory event. And, in some ways, worth the wait. A first in many respects, that I admired, especially because the D.C. dance community seems to have become again a shrinking violet, neither daring nor risky enough to step out of tried-and-true means of making and presenting dance. D.C. and its wealthy suburbs, Arlington County in Virginia and Montgomery County in Maryland, two examples, are in the midst of a theater boom. Theaters are going up in communities around the Beltway. A few are revitalizing or will revitalize—backers hope—the old downtown sections of D.C. In the suburbs, community planners seem to have finally picked up on the idea that theaters promote lively and safe neighborhoods, cultural and artistic expression, diversity and creativity. With new theater spaces in Bethesda and Silver Spring, Germantown and Rockville, performance opportunities should be boundless. But alas, the great majority of these spaces have no interest in or commitment to dance, not even a Nutcracker in late December to fill the coffers. Where was the dance community when these theaters were being planned and designed? Clearly not in the architectural charettes that led to the design of these spaces. The dance community missed the boat.

That Mason/Rhynes Productions, a young but rising presenter (it produces the sometimes controversial Metro D.C. Dance Awards) sought out the Lincoln Theatre and managed to forge a relationship is, as Martha Stewart would once have said, "a good thing." So why do I feel so alienated in this full house on a cold January evening? I confront a world of difference in my dance values and those of the audience. The audience whoops and hollers at every display of athletic finesse. A shoulder stand elicits ahs, a 180 degree penche arabesque, sucked in breath. When the music —as it's wont to do in this program—segues from classical to the driving beat of hip hop or funk, the audience bounces, claps and vocalizes agreeably. At times I think, perhaps, I'm at an ice-show applauding as Sasha Cohen nails a triple axel, but, no, I'm at a modern dance concert. And modern dance concerts are serious, even when they're funny; modern dancers are taking aim, conveying a message. It's not about technique, it's about artistry. So, my values collide, right there in row Z of the orchestra. And, in the end, there's nothing I can do to change it. I just accept the differences and forge through until the program closes, with a roar and a standing ovation.

Black Expressions featured six choreographic artists, three from Washington, D.C.—Gesel Mason, Boris Willis and Sandra Holloway—and three from New York—Jennifer Archibald, Christal Brown and Shani Collins—plus a modest array of painters and photographers in the lobby and "Donald" and his bucket band outside banging away in the icy wind.

Boris Willis's slippery study in formalism, Cocteau Variations, and Gesel Mason's piquant identity exploration in No Less Black were the evening's most mature and assured works. Willis with his dance partner Cynthia McLaughlin make an intriguing, even sensual couple, she shimmery, delicate; he sturdy, muscular, intense. The pair paints themselves into evolving Rorschachs, abstract moments of bodies in, not exactly repose, but in an ever-alert stillness. Then they move on, a jumble of limbs furling and swiping before the next indelible test. The piece, with impressionistic music by the Cocteau Twins, finely sketches a relationship both formal and emotional.

Mason's No Less Black meditates through words and movement on black identity in the late 20th century. Here danced by Darby Pack with Mason's poetry spoken by Karyn Siobhan Robinson, some of the tartness has dissipated from the work. Pack, especially in the opening back to audience seated image (one that repeated in at least two other works on the program) is a luscious, robust dancer, and as she traces the curves of her spine, hips and thighs to Mason's singsong words it's difficult not to want to love her, curves and splendor, ruefulness and arrogance. A riff on personalities and types in the black community, perhaps some of the snap has been muffled as once-pressing events have faded from memory. Mason refers to Jesse Jackson, Angela Davis and Justice Clarence Thomas and more. In the 24-7 news cycle we live in these days, something a mere five years old seems practically historic.

Relative newcomer, at least to the modern dance circuit, Sandra Holloway, is a D.C. native. She graduated in 1981 from the District's performing arts high school, Duke Ellington, and has worked in musical theater realm, at the Theatre of the First Amendment, at the Kennedy Center and with the City at Peace, which encourages youths to use arts to better their lives. Holloway gathered an impressive 13 dancers for her five-part Pa-shen, a meditation on the more ancient meaning of the word: "to suffer or undergo." The result, though, was a turgid and weakly rehearse declamation of emotions. The group sections, Impetus and Fervidus featured six couples in push-and-pull, heel resting on partner's shoulder style coupling. The smaller sections, a duet for Tammy Hurt and Dwayne Murray and two solos, DeMarcus Williams simpering and primping to Little Richard's version of I Feel Pretty from West Side Story (yes, really), and lanky Richard Freeman in a liturgical meditation, His Passion, with signs of the cross and self-flagellation, were only loosely connected to the larger whole.

Jennifer Archibald thinks it's a good idea to blend ballet and hip-hop. Maybe it is, but her two works for her Arch Dance Company—Catch 22 and Encounters—don't quite make the case. In both pieces she matches a trio of hip hop dancers with their quick jerky rhythmic variations for arms, elbows, wrists shoulders and rib cages, with the softer edges and curves of contemporary ballet technique—rond de jambe, arabesque, develope. She blends, too, the soundtracks, so a classical piece melds into an incessant hip-hop beat. What results, though, is not a blend, but a stylistic clash, and if that's what the choreographer wanted, she got it. But the effect seems not to value either style and the purported meaning, especially in the second work, which had the women chasing and passing a scarf, was inscrutable.

Shani Collins and Christal Brown create together for five women of Women@Work. Brown favored text and dove deeply into female-female, mother-daughter relationships in Beg-In Her. The piece represented a struggle, with identity and coming to terms, with belonging and being alone. Brown presented some intriguing staged moments, especially the opening image of women engulfed in waving swaths of cloth and the closing moment of two—sisters? mother and daughter?—separated but, perhaps, still connected. Collins in Goddess Subdued drew from stylized African movements and she seemed bent on exploring issues of identity and place in the world, but little connected between sections of the work, the text and music—Jill Scot, Slick Rick and Nina Simone.

But, needless to say, my comments were in the minority. The audience was extravagantly appreciative and vocal—applauding and whooping with every display of athleticism, pyrotechnics. Sure these dancers could dance; for the most part, they're technically proficient: strong legs, limber backs, high jumps, perfect splits. They look great on stage. But dance, in my value book, is about bodies, but it's about more than what bodies can do. It's about what bodies can say. Dance is about how a choreographer uses those bodies to express—a message, a feeling, a meditation, a moment. If I just wanted to see tight bodies do awesome things, I'd go to the gym or the ice rink. I'm interested in dance that values bodies and artistry.

First: Gesel Mason by Paul Emerson
Second: Boris Willis Moves
Third:  Jennifer Archibald.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 4
January 26, 2004

© 2004 Lisa Traiger




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