The Dancing Soul of Black Folks
of African American Choreography
The rattle of a West African drum pierced through the Eisenhower Theater. Its call urged six dancers from the African American Dance Ensemble to come down the aisle to the stage. But the drum—primal, as central to the body's core as a heartbeat—signaled something more. It was a call to ancestors, to dance royalty, and it was a statement to those gathered that this was the place and time to come forward in dance and through dance acknowledge incredible contributions that the creative minds of successive generations of African American have made to the very core of contemporary dance.
That drum call shook up some ideas about the beauty of, as W.E.B. DuBois wrote, of a "People a-dancing and a-singing." DuBois wrote about breaking through the shackles of prejudice a century ago. Those shackles seemed ripped asunder as the Kennedy Center brought forth some of the most creative dance genius in recent memory. Wednesday evening's program was a gala opening and on hand were most of the 43 living choreographers, teachers and dancers honored by the Kennedy Center with medals and red ribbons naming them "Masters of African American Choreography." Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center, midway through the evening took the podium and acclaimed the five-day festival the "most important modern dance project in the history of the Kennedy Center." He may well be right: while other festivals have brought together a variety of representative companies and creative dance artists, of national and international stature, none in recent recall has not just pulled off the logistical challenge of programming 17 companies in 24 works over five days of performances. But even greater, perhaps, will be the resulting payoff that occurs as these artists and past and present generations of choreographers' works share the stage.
That's what the drum call in essence signified: these works don't merely speak to us as viewers, the dances themselves contain the living embodiment of cultural forbears carried in the choreographic bones and sinews of the pieces. Kaiser's message then is fundamental and often overlooked: that choreography itself—movements, dynamics, gestures, ideas—speaks eloquently across cultural and social, political and historical distances. In that sense, Kaiser is right in noting the historic moment of the festival programming. As he introduced most of the honorees—from proudly erect Arthur Mitchell to petit dynamo Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, with dozens of other dance luminaries in between—Debbie Allen, Garth Fagan, Geoffrey Holder, Bill T. Jones and many, many more than space permits to name—the applause grew to cheers and whoops until these dancers, living masters, filled the stage and took their deserved bows. The last time a festival of this sort took place was in 1984, when the Brooklyn Academy of Music programmed "Dance Black America."
The opening evening centered on the African roots of African American dance. That drum call announced Chuck Davis's "Fanga," a traditional welcoming dance drawn from the Kpelle People of Liberia. The program noted that Pearl Primus was among the first to bring this and other traditional dances to America. Davis's six dancers from his North Carolina-based African American Dance Ensemble opened their arms wide, rolled their backs and relished the movement, yet the performance felt uncharacteristically subdued. Many African dance troupes, especially in the Washington, D.C., area can ignite a room of any size with their big-hearted and far-flung performances. I was surprised that Davis's company appeared constrained and even their brilliantly vibrant robes seemed to recede.
Along with Primus, Katherine Dunham has been a founding mother to African American choreographers, knitting together primary elements of ceremonial African dance with techniques of modern dance. Her approach to full bodied choreography incorporates isolations of the pelvis, ribs, shoulder girdle and arms and legs, multi-syncopated percussive movements, and an earth-directed center —and is no less important than that of Martha Graham's 'discovery' of contraction and release. Dunham's quartet "Choros" from 1944, performed by the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Robinson Ensemble, doesn't overemphasize her technical contributions to the genre. A sweetly playful divertissement, "Choros" culls from Afro-Brazilian rhythms while fusing them onto ballet technique— something that Dance Theatre of Harlem will evolve further with the South African dance vocabulary. Along with pique arabesques and courtly reverences, elegant cabrioles and sissones, the women smile and relish their hips, which sway in turn, while the men fan their legs in leaps and roll their shoulders. The dancers, ladies in multicolored bolero jackets and flounced skirts, men in striped pants and flat hats, not surprisingly, approach the piece with cabaret-like showmanship, for that was frequently where Dunham's works found audiences.
Asadata Dafora's "Awassa Astrige/Ostrich" is a choreographic gem from 1932. Ageless Koffi Koko, with plumes of feathers strategically placed, unfurled his glistening ebony arms ever so delicately right out to the very fingertips. With birdlike alertness, eyes and head darting side to side, Koko blazed an image of sandblasted savannahs and grand natural expanses in the ever-graceful undulations of his shimmery torso and remarkable shoulders.
Geoffrey Holder's "Dougla," from 1974 provides another moment of African fusion with the musical language and movement techniques of the Hindu and Moslem Far East. Holder's staged wedding celebration, with its harem of scarved women and hordes of gorgeous bare-chested, men also relishes its dancers' showmanship. Men bound and leap, competing, while women, their fingers splayed like opened blossoms, their heads delicately bobbing, their shoulders caressing and hips a sway, carry themselves with a mysterious modesty that verges on severity. Holder designed the sunny yellow and polka dotted dresses and scarves, which contrasted with the saintly white of the bride, whose upright stature lent her a royal air. Dance Theatre of Harlem's dancers attacked the work with enough flair, if somewhat less than attention technical rigidity, right down to Arthur Mitchell's head-bobbing bow with his sleek dancers.
Two works on the opening evening, Zollar's "Walking with Pearl—Africa Diaries" and Bill T. Jones's "Mercy 10 x 8 on a Circle"—aptly demonstrated how successive generations of African American choreographers have modulated their creative approach, creatively moving forward while not ignoring the past. Zollar narrated with excerpts from Primus's diaries, and her Urban Bush Women, seven unique performers, have found a dance language that stretches beyond simple fusion. The building blocks for this approach remain rooted in the exploration of the full body, ample use of torso, dynamic distinctions between strength and softness, and phrases completely inflected with attentive details felt through to the core. Like much African cultural dance, the work contains a circular feel that suggests continuity as much as progress. Primus's descriptive poetic words, and sounds of warmly plucked strings by Toumani Diabate and Ballake Sissoko, support the seven women. There's a sense of austerity in the angular sculptural poses the women take up, but also a sense of strength, an arm jutting upward or a flexed-footed leg shooting sideways. Soft falls to the floor, rolling undulating spines and at one-point a bevy of gazelle-like leaps, hint subtly at the ideas of picturesque African landscapes. But Zollar's work goes further and is, perhaps, more culturally mature than, say, "South African Suite" or Holder's "Dougla," she's not interested in just taking an interesting snapshot. Choreographically Zollar seeks out the building blocks of culture, but reshapes them for her own time. She's in that sense as much a choreographic anthropologist as Dunham or Primus.
Jones's "Mercy 10x8 on a Circle" is, like many of his works, directly and unabashedly about beauty in the largest sense. His ten dancers soar through Beethoven's 32 Variations on an Original Theme—lovingly performed by Glenn Gould. There's Jones's trademark formalism, perfect changing and evolving arrays of couples who clasp, lift, support and carry one another with an elegant, cleanly executed Balanchinean grace. Athletic jumps, moments of thoughtful repose, and carefully stolen kisses suggest that something else—a hint of a story, a relationship growing closer or going awry in the mixing and matching of couples—male-male, male female, and female-female—might be unfolding in the subtext. Bjorn Amelan's decor brightly lit gray stage features slowing falling chips of black, white and red confetti, a soft rain, amid an ever-moving landscape. Jones's work, crisp, clean and refreshingly abstract doesn't hinge on African American ancestral influences—but then right in the center of the work a circle appears, which the dancers turn around and circulate through. It's unlikely that Jones was thinking of cultural constructs but the circle returns the dance somehow in unplanned ways to its roots.
The second program focused on mid-20th century innovators and the works spoke of political turmoil, the effects of racism, and the continual spiritual striving of a people undermined and overworked. Donald McKayle's "Games," in a bright sometimes overly forceful performance by the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, narrated lives of innocent children. Excellent singers Tamica Washington-Miller and Melvin Clark III offered up childhood rhymes in the tradition of children's street games, teasing or jonin', and sing song chants, which became the basis of McKayle's choreography: double dutch jump rope, hand-clapping rhythm games, and imaginative play with tin cans. Finally, though, the childish fun is overtaken by an offstage—unseen—attack on one of the innocents. In 1951, this was surely a telling and provocative moment.
Two solos, Talley Beatty's "Mourner's Bench" and Alvin Ailey's "Cry" spoke of unwavering faith and devotion to a higher power, even amid insurmountable odds. From Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, William B. McClellan, Jr., gave a powerfully inspired performance of Beatty's 1947 work, an excerpt from the full evening "Southern Landscape, 1965," which was based on Howard Fast's "Freedom Road." Beatty's reaches upward, sustained against the tug of the earth, and prayer-like gestures emphasize the centrality that belief in a higher power and spirit of many African American choreographers. "Mourner's Bench" seems significantly a precursor to Ailey's own church-centered paean to African American culture, "Revelations," with its innately expressive faith even against adversity. But equally, this masterful work also makes obvious linkages to Graham's similarly themed "Lamentations," which also features a bench-bound solo performer. The evening closed with dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem in Augustus van Heerden, Laveen Naidu and Arthur Mitchell's "South African Suite," a pastoral work recalling expansive habitats and animal imitations in eight sections, using a jazz and afro-inspired score by the Soweto String Quartet. The 1999 expanded work has sections representative of ceremonial African dance—"Blessing," "Warriors" and "Gathering," as well as sections reflective of natural influences—"Felines," the sensual catlike Tai Jimenez partnered by James Washington, and in "Enduring Spirit," Christiane Cristo-Ezewoko's remarkable giraffe walk, her head pitched over as she walked on all four limbs en pointe. The work, though, is more showpiece that masterpiece.
In "Cry," Ailey's 1971 tribute "to all black women everywhere, especially our mothers," Dwana Adiaha Smallwood offers a graceful, if not entirely full throttled performance. Images of the iconic Judith Jamison's earthy strength and unfurled attack live on in the bones of this work. Ailey's searing images—the white skirted dancer reaching upward, kicking and arching back, rolling her hips and walking valiantly, proudly erect—remain unforgettable.
Though there were less than stellar performances over the first two programs, the sum of bringing together these works, proved as powerful as the works themselves. It's hard not to notice where choreography connects to cultural roots—in bodies bent forward, in footwork that caresses the floor rather than using it only as a springboard into the air, in the manner so many of these dancers lift their heads and stretch their arms upward and outward—in expressions of prayer, of thanks, of striving. The message finally and definitively is that contributions these African American master choreographers have made over six decades are long reaching and even longer lasting. Modern dance, contemporary dance, and, most significantly, popular culture, would not be the same without them. Finally, ultimately, these works express in vivid bodily form what DuBois eloquently described as "the soul-beauty of a race."