By Walter Rutledge
Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance presented Donald Mckayle’s masterwork Rainbow Round My Shoulder during their 2016 New York City season. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company performed the work as guest of the Taylor Company. This marks the second year of Taylor’s new dance initiative, which presents modern dance classics often performed by guest companies.
Live music by Destan Owens with Michael McElroy and the Broadway Inspirational Voices provided additional authenticity and power. Gary Sieger on guitar helped take us back to the era of segregated restrooms and water fountains. The combination of work songs and blues has been compared by less knowledgeable eyes to the early works of Alvin Ailey. Although these artists excelled in the dance narrative genre and used “Blood Memories” (memories deeply rooted in our past) this is where the comparison ends both stylistically and in content.
Rainbow Round My Shoulder, which depicts the depravity of life on a southern chain gang, is an outstanding example of the storytelling power of dance theatre. The genre has fallen out of style in resent years not because of the lack of interest by the public, but mainly due to the skill required to effectively translate message into movement.
The cast consisted of seven men; Devin Baker, Michael Green, Joshua L. Ishmon, Robert Puliudo, Alvin Rangel, Quentin Apollo Vaughn Sledge and Demetrius Tabron, and one woman Alexis Britford. Each performer approached the work with the attention to detail and the required weight. Modern dance has suffered from training that emphasizes learning (but unfortunately not always mastering) a medley of styles, resulting in a watering down of the discipline. This is especially evident in repertory companies that attempt to offer something for everyone.
To Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s credit the revival retains the modern dance weight and grounded center. At times the company reminisced the testosterone charged Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater of the 70’s and 80’s. Men dancing like men, not forsaking the depth of the contractions for the height of the extensions. When Alexis Britford performed a series of arabesques emanating from contractions in coupe’, she literally channeled Sara Yarborough. Thank you Alexis… Sara is truly missed.
In another strong moment the men clasped their hands as if restrained by manacles. The musculature in their backs talked to us as they performed a series of lunges moving upstage. Some would call this ole school, no, it was simply dancing, real dancing, expressive and earthy. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company articulated McKayle’s poetic, poignant and prophetic declaration on mass incarnation and injustice. A timeless message that still resonates in 2016.
Created in 1959 just four-year after the cowardly murder of 14-year-old Emmett Louis Till, three years after the end of the Birmingham Bus Boycott, and two years after Ku Klux Klansmen stopped a performance of the Ballet Russe looking for “Negress” Raven Wilkinson, McKayle courageously followed in the footsteps of great modern dance choreographers by using his art as a weapon for social and politic change.
Ultimately the difference between nice dances and endearing masterworks is choreographic structure. Rainbow Round My Shoulder not only belongs in the masterwork category, is should be considered one of its archetypes. McKayle uses a finite movement vocabulary establishing a clear, concise and authentic conversation with the audience.
Storytelling involves building an emotional bond with the audience through a series of events. An author manipulates 26 characters in specific (finite) combinations to create words that become sentences and paragraphs. Choreography follows a similar cannon of limiting the movement choices, thus enabling the choreography and choreographer to develop a style and an individual voice.
Choreographers use specific recurring themes in the form of repetition, which the artist as craftsman morphs into theme and variation/ development. McKayle accomplishes this with an unfettered ease using focused imagery and a simplicity of design. During the works rising action McKayle introduces a crossing passage for the seven men grouped in two lines; one line consisting of four men moving a terre’ while the remaining three were en l’air- jumping above them. His ability to create a classic symmetric motif with an odd number of performers recalls the works Martha Graham, one of his former teachers.
When the men are placed upstage while the female soloist worked downstage center it reinforced the imagery of two worlds, the real and surreal/fantasy. As the men take turns subtly reacting to Britford, the spatial relationship and simple gestures fueled the theme of helplessness and impotence.
Finally, as the curtain falls Baker collapses in a downspot upstage right, Britford returns to a spot upstage left. With arms lifted she repeats her opening phrase. Here McKayle has possibly introduced a fourth female image the question becomes who is she- The Angel of Death or the Angel of Mercy?
Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance is a modern dance treasure. The best way to preserve and perpetuate the art form is to share it with the public. Works such as Rainbow Round My Shoulder should not be sequestered in video libraries. Dance is a living art that is best appreciated when performed. Through this initiative the legacy of Paul Taylor and modern dance have a secure future.
In Photo: 1) Alexis Britford and company 2) . Elbert Watson, Melvin Jones, Michihiko Oka, and Ulysses Dove- Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater 3) Devin Baker, Michael Green, Demetrius Tabron, Joshua L. Ishman, Quentin A. Sledge
Photo Credit: 1&3 Sara D. Davis/ ADF 2011, 2) Johan Elbers