By Walter Rutledge
The Black Dallas Dance Company (BDDC) began a two-day performance series at the Joyce theater on January 11th, 2024. The series was part of the Joyce Theater‘s eighth annual American Dance Platform. Jacob’s Pillow Associate Curator Melanie George presented a trilogy of performances and performers with a roster including Jazz at the Joyce (1/9 and 1/10) Soles of Duende (1/11 and 1/14) and Dallas Black Dance Theatre (1/12 and 1/13).
The company presented a very audience friendly 80-minute program consisting of three works by choreographers Kameron N. Saunders, Norbert De La Cruz lll and Chanel DaSilva. It would have been to the choreographer’s advantage to have included program notes to provide the audience greater understanding of their intent. The works presented all reflected on or hardened back to the “Motherland”.
The works shared similar movement vocabularies, choreographic format and underlying yet undefined themes. The credo, “if in doubt do an attitude turn”, was a practice generously adhered to be each dance maker. They also relied heavily on arbitrary “African que” movement sprinkled between contemporary dance phases. This amalgam of movement and styles was neither satisfying nor honest.
Black In Time (clever title) by Kameron N. Saunders opened the program. The dancers entered the stage clad in gray “mud people” leotards and tights to a sound that resemble an accelerating heartbeat. The modern dance built into an angular and rhymical statement, then the lights dimmed; and Terrell Rogers Jr. entered in an African patterned skirt. Why?
The movement and imagery changed to elemental African inspired steps interspersed between modern dance patterns. This mood shift had no obvious connection with the content in the opening section and was confusing and convoluted. Fortunately, the works brevity was its saving grace.
Norbert De La Cruz’s Critical Mass offered the most visual interest. The opening movement of bodies unfolding produced a satisfying and almost Zen-like quality. Then from nowhere came his tribute to the Motherland and we were swept into ambiguity. To Cruz’s credit his use of reoccurring themes produced some noteworthy moments of theme and development. In fact, the ending recalled the opening in a very clever and unexpected variation on his original theme.
The evening closed with Tabernacle by choreographer Chanel DaSilva. This work opened with a visually impressive tableau of four dancers in African garb standing on concealed platforms which gave them the appearance of being ten foot tall. As the ensemble cast entered the mood remained somber, and reverent.
Then the music shifted, this time a to hip hop/rap motif while the movement morphed into more contemporary with African and street vernacular steps and gestures. The costuming was the most puzzling element of the ballet. For a moment I thought I was at a tribute to the 70’s funk/rock trio LaBelle- complete it feathers positioned on the upper back and shoulders. There were some witty moments provided by the dialog but that was overshadowed by the numerous unrelated vignettes, which added to the works protracted length.
I was dismayed by DBDT’s Artistic Director Melissa M. Young’s selection of these works for this performance series. They shared too many thematic, stylistic and movement qualities, which blurred the individual messages of these dance makers. More artistic diversity would have further highlighted the stellar performers in the company. The performance did showcase the virtuosity of the individual members of this very strong company. Many had impressive pedigrees including North Carolina School of the Arts, and multiple alumni from the Ailey Fordham Program and Point Park College. Every company member was a standout, but there were a few who were given the opportunity to really shine.
The choreography favored and spotlighted the male dancers, and Terrell Rogers Jr.’s intense and committed attack distinguished him from the cast. While Derrick McKoy Jr. innate presence made it hard not to watch him. Elijah W. Lancaster is DBDT’s dance phenom, the question was “what could he NOT do”. Lancaster is living proof of the phrase “good things come in small packages”, although diminutive in stature his dancing transformed him into a Brobdingnagian.
Dallas Black Dance Theatre demonstrated the strength of regional dance companies and their positive impact and civil pride they create in the communities they serve. The American Dance Platform provides a glimpse into the powerful dance world from the south, west, and of course the metropolitan area. DBDT’s New York performance was long overdue, and we look forward to their return.