writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

A Whole Lotta Dancing

New Voices
CityDance Ensemble
Terrace Theater
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, D.C.
Saturday, March 13, 2004

by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2004 by Alexandra Tomalonis
published 15 March 2004

It isn’t every Saturday night I leave a dance concert yearning for a time machine that will wiz me back to 1930s New York so I can starve in a garret and dance for Martha, but, then, it isn’t every Saturday night I get to see Jane Dudley’s Harmonica Breakdown, either. Dudley’s spare and jubilant ode to American Depression Era persistence is part of CityDance Ensemble’s admirable Legacy Program, intended to preserve the best of the past.

Harmonica Breakdown was created during a time when modern dancers elevated the solo to a complex art form, and I wish every college composition class had the opportunity to study, deconstruct, reconstruct and stage this piece and learn its lessons. Dudley took a late 19th century African American dance (the Break-Down) and used it as a base vocabulary to construct her own work to Sonny Terry’s blues piece. Each section has a few movement motifs, each is developed; there’s a recurring theme where the dancer trudges onward, never conquering, never conquered.

I didn't see Dudley or her pupils dance Harmonica Breakdown (this version is credited: rehearsal director, Pearl Lang; Assistant Rehearsal Director, Mim Rosen) but CDE’s Connie Fink was magnificently convincing in it. I have seen photos, and could see their shapes in her twisting leaps. Fink didn’t indicate the work’s humor that's always mentioned in accounts of this dance (I would imagine the endless trudges eventually were delivered with more wit) but she had the weight, the power, the looseness and, most important, the conviction, to make it live.

Unfortunately, few of the other works on this overstuffed program made their points as succinctly. The eight dances would have been more easily digested spread out over two evenings, with perhaps two of the shorter works repeated. It’s not that the program was overlong, but that the dances were shuttled on and off the stage so quickly that one didn’t have time to take them in. It was rather like being served a multi-course, multi-cuisine meal where nothing quite went together: shrimp cocktail, Brunswick stew, steak dijon, blackened maui-maui and a side of collards, bouillabaisse, and a nice tofu surprise. When it’s over, you’re stuffed, but not satisfied, because there wasn’t the opportunity to savor each dish.

Whether or not it was intentional, several of the works dealt with suffering, either personal angst or societal catharsis, which diluted the poignancy of each. Vladimir Angelov’s Deep Surface, a September 11th piece that closed the program, was the strongest, with its solid structure, its fluidity, and its images of despair and shock and comfort. Emerson’s Message (A Song of Sarajevo) was a series of climaxes that seemed to be over several times before it ended; Adrain Bolton’s Givin Up had four women writhing in heartfelt anguish to Jennifer Holliday songs. CDE doesn’t have a uniform movement style, but it does have a very emotionally honest performing style as its signature. The dancers (some of them very able indeed) maintain eye contact, they dance for and to each other when appropriate to the dance. There’s never a sense of counting, or just doing steps, or marking time. This makes even the pieces that are weak choreographically engaging to watch, but the emotions in both Message and, especially, Deep Surface were so strong that each piece would have made more effect if it had been on its own program.

Moving on from modern to contemporary dance, the company presented a world premiere, Ludovic Jolivet’s Basura Cerebral, which the program helpfully translated as “Cerebral Trash;” and Karen Reedy’s Cheating, Lying, Stealing. Jolivet, a Parisian who now makes his home in DC and has danced with Tiempo de Tango, made a tango for office workers in Basura Cerebral that would packed more of a punch had it been shorter. I found the piece confusing. Everyone, men and women, was dressed in male business attire, but it wasn’t clear whether this was to show that women were doubly shackled by the workplace because they have to wear suits, or because Jolivet wanted to make a piece for all men and had to make do. The piece told us that the office curtails our individuality and that money is bad, an oft-worked theme, with a different, tangoesque look to it. There were several effective moments; the unifying device of moving panels either to simulate an elevator or serve as screens for scene and prop changes; the masks the dancers wore at the end. Aside for some dips and dives, the movement vocabulary was limited, but it seemed deliberately so and if the work were substantially tightened it could be stunning.

Karen Reedy began her career in Washington and has danced with several companies, including Mark Morris’s, since leaving it. She seems serious about choreographing, not only creating dances, but assisting choreographers in staging works, and Cheating, Lying, Stealing shows that she’s learning her craft. This was a dance of aggression for nine, to a pounding score by David Lang, that was well-made and it MOVED. Although it could be described as "high energy dancing," the energy was controlled, and there was nothing formulaic or specifically derivative; it was, of all the dances, the one I most wished had had some breathing room as the centerpiece of a less eclectic program. It deserves a good, long look.

Jason Hartley of the Washington Ballet danced his solo Nocturne Monologue, a muscle-boy piece in which Hartley crouches, does back flips, and experiments with weight shifts. It's the kind of piece that seems to be most interesting as a challenge to the dancer, but Hartley's affable self-effacing performing style is easy to take.

Angelov’s Suitcase, danced by guest star Rasta Thomas and company member Tiffani Frost, needs a few seconds at the beginning to set up the dance’s situation, explained in the program note as “An angel, who has stored his wings in a suitcase, comes to earth as a regular man to experience a relationship with a woman.” The piece begins with Angel Rasta’s entrance, and a suitcase and black coat quickly follow, hurled from the wings: God, a landlord, or an angry girlfriend? We don’t know. Frost enters and their relationship begins within seconds; she's as likely to be the suitcase tosser having second thoughts as the lure for Thomas to put aside his angel nature. This aside, Suitcase is a strong piece, using Thomas’s airborne technique to make a point—he misses being able to fly. He also misses his wings, and Angelov shows the Angel’s divided nature by having Thomas reach behind, slowly, desperately feeling his back where the wings should be. It was good to see Thomas again (he’s now with Dance Theatre of Harlem) and see him dancing in such a committed way. Frost not only matched him, but nearly stole the show. She’s a powerful dancer, big and bold and beautiful, and she went after this guy for all she was worth. She's left with a suitcase of feathers at the end (a bit of an unfortunate image, in an art form studded with tragic fowl) but it makes the point that the Angel can't have it all.

The program opened with a example of CDE’s community involvement, which, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, seemed a bit patronizing. A group of area elementary school students, part of the company’s outreach program, gave a demonstration of what they’d learned. They were adorable, of course, but they weren’t ready for the stage, and what they danced left me puzzled about the program. Why teach kids the stuff they already know how to do (in this case, the kind of break-dancing, or whatever it’s called these days, they do on the playground) instead of some formal form of dance?

There is so much good about CityDance Ensemble. Many of the dancers are excellent, although the company badly needs more men, and Emerson has more drive and dreams than most directors. He obviously wants CDE to be a big, important company, and he may well do it. But they're not there yet, and the dreams might be sooner fulfilled if there were more breaths taken along the way. Selecting a few of the best works would have made the company seem to have a broad range, rather than be manically eclectic.

Top: Tiffani Frost.
Botton:  Jason Hartley.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 15
March 15, 2004

© 2004 Alexandra Tomalonis




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