By Walter Rutledge
The Dallas Black Dance Theater (DBDT) presented their all too short New York season, “Spirit Of Now” at the Ailey Citigroup Theater on Thursday, May 2 and Friday, May 3. The two-day two performance series marked the sixth season at the venue and the first season for the recently appointed Artistic Director Melissa M. Young. Her twenty-five-year association with DBDT (eleven years as a performing and fourteen administrative/artistic) gives Young a unique understanding of the company ethos. A teary eyed Young promised the audience the company would, “Move your spirit”.
The five dance/theatre works offered by a diverse group of emerging, established and master choreographers broached themes ranging from relationships to civil rights. Young has expanded on founder Ann Williams’ legacy of showcasing contemporary/dance theatre works (many steeped in the Black dance tradition). She has achieved this through thoughtful curated programming and strong well-trained performers.
Juel D. Lane’s full ensemble opener How To Kill A Ghost explored the destructive power of holding on to things that no longer exist. Set in three movements to a rhythmic score by Quentin EQ Johnson, the work structurally had the feel of a dancing sonata. Sudden and explosive movement executed with surgical procession garnered spontaneous applause from the enthusiastic and often vocal audience. The second movement began in silence producing an effective counterbalance for the sweeping and more expansive movement. The third section heightened the kinesthetic excitement due primarily to Lailah Duke’s sensually syncopated solo consisting of tighter and more isolated percussive upper body movements.
Essence, a solo tribute to the women who have influenced dancemaker Christopher Huggins swept through a gamut of human emotions. Dancer Kayah Franklin’s tall Amazonian frame captivated the audience with her impressive long legs and pliant feet. Performed almost entirely on a chair, Huggins produced imagery ranging from childlike wonderment and regal beauty to vulnerability and helplessness. Franklin’s nuanced artistry became the lynchpin in this homage to female empowerment.
DBDT company member Claude Alexander lll’s full ensemble work Face What’s Facing You opened with three lines of dancers moving in a linear pattern from stage left to stage right. Using breath timing in silence, his second section offered a more lyric approach to his theme of self- discovery. The work ended with a solo dancer sequestered in a path of light slowly progressing forward while the ensemble cascaded from the stage right wings disappearing stage left. Alexander’s clever use of repetition visually created a continuous river of bodies.
Absolute Rule, a collaboration between master choreographer Elisa Monte and David Brown, featured McKinley Willis and Zion Pradier. Monte’s superior understanding of choreographic form and order transcended pure movement to establish a clear and concise dialogue/conversation. Pradier’s strong presence balanced his confident partnering and Willis’ focused abandon. Monte reintroduced varied and developed movement phases with magisterial ease and directness; giving the partnered driven work a freshness and spontaneity without becoming saccharine and melodramatic. This made the reoccurring, revisited and reimagined themes welcomed and reassuring.
The evening culminated with the full ensemble work Bodies as Site of Faith and Protest by Tommie-Waheed Evans. The African-American Civil Rights movement became the backdrop for Evans emotionally riveting dance theatre work. Claude Alexander lll led the ensemble in an a cappella rendition of Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody in a downstage line of solidarity stretching from stage left to stage right.
The group marched in place upstage, while small groups of solos, duets and trios splintered off dancing downstage. The vignettes depicting confrontations and the aftermath of violence juxtaposed the slow and steady marching cadence of the group; it conjured memories of Bloody Sunday, the 1965 Edmund Pettus Bridge atrocity. His multiple storylines were presented simultaneously telling the stories of the many unsung heroes who anonymously sacrificed for equality.
The ensuing controlled chaos dissolved back into a line this time upstage. With their backs to the audience Alexander lll lead the ensemble in a vocal rendition of We Shall Overcome. As the lights began to fade the image of singing performers locked hand in hand produced a profound sense of nostalgic hope and unity.
Dallas Black Dance Theater continues to impact contemporary dance and the Black dance tradition through innovation and exploration. It also continues to explore new avenues of dance by bringing the next generation of dancers and dance makers to the forefront. In many ways the company’s 42 season honored the past with a “Spirit Of Now”.