By Walter Rutledge
Dallas Black Dance Theatre (DBDT) returned to New York City on January 5th and 6th as part of the Joyce Theater’s American Dance Platform. The series (curated by Alicia Adams and dedicated to the memory of former Harkness Foundation for Dance executive director Theodore Bartwink) offered a diverse group of eight dance companies including the new, emerging and established. Each company appeared twice on a double-billed program. Dallas Black Dance Theatre closed the five-day/six performance dance-fest on a high note.
Founder and Artistic Advisor Ann Williams has cultivated the company into the quintessential dance theatre ensemble. The style is an extension of the African-American storytelling tradition expressed through movement, and has become the cornerstone of the black dance experience. DBDT continues this legacy by preserving black dance classics, while introducing new and emerging choreographers working in the tradition. The program offered two works in the dance theatre genre Furtherance by Kirven Douthit-Boyd and Matthew Rushing’s Tribute.
The dance theatre tradition extends beyond modern dance steps; it embodies the total theatrical dance experience. Katherine Dunham helped propel the genre to international recognition through her company’s work in motion pictures during the late 1930’s and 1940’s; but Alvin Ailey is undoubtedly the most recognized dance theatre choreographer. Most people associate Ailey with dance theatre classics Revelations and Blues Suite, but it was Broadway that lured him and his friend Carmen De Lavallade to New York.
After appearing in the Hollywood production of Carmen Jones (1954) Ailey moved east performing on Broadway in House of Flowers (1954) (by Truman Capote and starring Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll), Sing, Man, Sing (1956) (starring Harry Belafonte) and Jamaica (1957) (with Lena Horne and Ricardo Montalban). These experiences helped shape the Horton-based dancer and choreographer into a song and dance man. Ailey incorporated theatrical elements (including lighting, costumes and acting) into his work creating story based dance narratives. Although Ailey died in 1989 his choreographic genius has continued to influence generations of dance makers.
Kirven Douthit-Boyd’s work, Furtherance, depicts overcoming personal struggle and ends with a celebration of triumph. His use of abstract narrative imagery triumphantly takes us on an uplifting dance odyssey. Furtherance opened with dancer De’Anthony Vaughan sequestered behind a wall of bodies that was aggressively moving upstage. Vaughan quickly eludes the advancing impediment with a series of second position extensions, before continuing on his journey.
Douthit-Boyd worked through a contemporary dance vocabulary that reminisced signature movement from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Well placed second position extensions, arabesque and attitude turns en dehor peppered the work with ample modern/ballet aplomb. Designed as a series of vignettes the centerpiece of the work was a duet featuring Claude Alexander III and Alyssa Harrington.
Alexander III and Harrington have grown into the roles since DBDT debuted Furtherance in the 2016 Spring Season. This allowed the audience to look beyond the steps and experience the artistry. The seamless lifts and ardent partnering had maturated into effective abstract narrative storytelling. Here Douthit-Boyd successfully trusted the movement to reveal the story, while subtle and nuanced gestures enhanced the section without becoming saccharine.
Keon K. Nickie’s short but energetic solo acted as the catalyst, drawing the dancers into his vortex. In this section Douthit-Boyd artfully created the required rising action to transition into the finale. Harrington returns alone culminating the work dancing in a protective circular cocoon of amber down light.
Matthew Rushing appropriately named his new ensemble work Tribute. The work is a black dance history lesson told through multiple mediums including movement, spoken word, lighting and scenic design. Rushing added a new word to the dance lexicon- Dancestors; which also encapsulates the ballet’s objective.
Throughout the work the names and quotes of iconic figures in dance including 20th century legends Alvin Ailey, Talley Beatty, Janet Collins, Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen de Lavallade were interspersed. While dancer, actress and choreographer Hope Clark and Rushing created a voiceover track with quotes from Judith Jamison, Donald McKayle, Dr. Pearl Primus and DBDT dancers. The collective effect helped to create an ancestral family tree of dance artists, with an emphasis on African- American performers.
As in Furtherance the most impressive section was a duet. Male performers Claude Alexander III and Sean J. Smith combined their talents as singer and tap dancer respectively, transforming the Joyce stage into an intimate Uptown cabaret. Rushing provided these two talented performers an avenue to extend their range, and both young artists rose to the occasion.
In the ensuing ensemble sections Rushing continued to reference 20th century dance. Most notably a rendition of Wade In The Water was mixed into the score. Rushing had performed this section of Revelations while a member of the Ailey Company; and the imagery produced seemed less personal/autobiographic and more personable/first person.
For years the art of storytelling through dance has been marginalized in favor of plotless exercises in “pure” movement. Many dance performances seem to mimic nouvelle cuisine; it is interesting to look at, even satisfying to the palette, but not always fulfilling. The Dallas Black Dance Theatre honors the black dance tradition and the dance theatre genre, while helping to move the art form into the 21st century.