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By Walter Rutledge
When incidents of oppression are remembered through the eyes of the oppressor and their descendants the atrocities usual receive a historic “whitewashing”; or become uncomfortable footnotes in whispered history. There is a majesty and power in truth. Greenwood by choreographer Donald Byrd retells the Oklahoma massacre dubbed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot; a sinister event of racism that has been swept under the Jim Crow rug of American history.
The difference between an established dance maker and an artist is not just prowess, but their need to take risks. Byrd, an accomplished storyteller, introduces us to the ethereal Jacqueline Green, who functions as an omniscient and omnipresent Griot. Entering upstage center through a floor to ceiling monolith that opens into a black box, Green with an Amazonian presence transports us into the segregated Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
A blond and bouffant Danica Paulos stands center stage framed in a rectangular box of light we hear the approaching footsteps of Chalvar Monterio; who joins her in the light. As she brings her arms together the eerie sound of metal elevator gates closing cuts through the silence. This first innocent encounter probably reflects what really happened; a black man entered an elevator and stepped on the foot of a white teenage girl- the tragedy begins.
Through the course of the work this elevator scenario is repeated three times. Each time the encounter becomes intentionally less innocent, and Monterio’s portrayal becomes more “savage” and physically aggressive. This theatrical device helped symbolize how the incident became more sensationalize by the bigoted Tulsa community to insight the carnage. In each subsequent renditions the walking sound was augmented with the sound of more running as if fleeing an angry lynch mob.
Clifton Brown, Ghrai DeVore-Stokes, Solomon Dumas and Jacquelin Harris portrayed the “colored” citizens of Greenwood. Byrd interspersed moments of stylized posed stillness. These tableaus recall the sepia colored family portraits photographs of the proud Greenwood citizenry. This effectively created a subtle and nuanced pathos for these soon to be victims of mob violence.
To Byrd’s credit he did not create a literal Klu Klux Klan militia; instead the oppressor are silver automatons- faceless, mindless, devoid of a heart or soul. Even the movement vocabulary Bryd assigned to this ensemble of seven dancers had a robotic non-human quality.
The Tulsa African- American community was a living example of W.E.B. Dubois’ doctrine of self- determination. Since the Caucasian population demanded social and economic delineations and extreme apartheid- like separation by race; this left Tulsa’s African- American population to develop their own reality. The people’s ability to adapt, to adjust, survive and flourish; and the concept of Greenwood, a thriving self-sufficient “Colored” community, only created envy, scorn and resentment. The White community only needed a social issue scandal to justify displacing and erasing Greenwood; and destroy the community’s growing and solidified political and civic base.
In a striking moment Green sits downstage legs crossed arms relaxed at her side with her back to the audience; a passive, almost otherworldly, observer of the butchery. Green eventually rises, walks upstage to aid the fallen motionless citizens strewn about the stage floor. She drags Harris from the group and then lifts her onto her shoulder and carries her limp and broken body through the monolithic doorway and out of view.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot is one of the many little-known tragedies that illustrates the struggle for racial equality and the oppressive Jim Crow era. Byrd’s ability to translate history into a powerful abstract narrative is another example of how a seasoned choreographer/storyteller brings new life to a forgotten American abomination. Less than two years later the 1923 Rosewood Massacre decimated another thriving African- American community in Florida. These atrocities are absent from most classroom history books, so it is up to brave artists like Byrd to remind us of the majesty and power in truth- less we forget.
Greenwood by Donald Byrd
Solomon Dumas, Akua Noni Parker and Jacqueline Green 2) Danica Paulos and Chalvar Monteiro 3) Clifton Brown, Ghrai DeVore-Stokes, Solomon Dumas and Jacquelin Harris and Jacqueline Green
Photography by: 1&3) Paul-Kolnik 2) Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
By Walter Rutledge
A.I.M. (Abraham In Motion) presented their New York City season at the Joyce Theater Tuesday, October 15 through Sunday, October 20, 2019. The six- day, seven performance season offered five works, including three world premieres and one company premieres, by three choreographers. The concise, focused and extremely audience friendly program was a successful blend of both visceral and cerebral movement and imagery.
In Big Rings (2019 World Premiere) choreographer and company member Keerati Jinakunwiphat presented a cleanly crafted ensemble work for six dancers. Jinakunwiphat clearly understands the craft of choreography, approaching this work with strong compositional form and design. Extremely fluent in “Abraham”; she proficiently worked in Abraham’s vernacular and canon. The use of music from different genres and the well employed choreographic device of theme and development kept the work fast past and well defined. This was especially evident in the second movement of the work where she brought freshness to Camille Saint-Saens “chestnut” The Swan.
Show Pony (2018) presented performer Marcella Lewis and choreographer Abraham in a very favorable light. In true Abraham style the choreographer established a finite movement vocabulary; which he manipulated, variated and developed throughout. Shifting between pure and gesture driven movement (with a pleasant dash of personality) Abraham created a work that was dynamic, original and fun.
Clad in a metallic gold unitard Lewis danced with unmitigated aplomb; commanding the stage and at times relegated the audience to unwitting voyeurism. If the arms are the language of the dance, Abraham allowed her to speak in a clear choreographic voice. She gave new meaning to the phrase “the hostess with the mostest”; when retreating to a pool of clear light she smiled while offering salutations and greetings to the audience.
Trisha Brown’s Solo Olos (1976 company premiere) epitomizes the phase God mic. The work for five dancers and initially performed in silence took an unexpected twist when dancer Donovan Reed jumped off the stage and sat on the first row with a wireless microphone. The almost Deis Machine devise became an omnipresent dictate guiding the dancers through the movement, which consisted of reversing many of the movement passages. This thinking man’s (excuse me- thinking person’s) abstract ballet lived up to it’s title.
Cocoon (2019 World Premiere), a solo choreographed and performed by Kyle Abraham, opened with a chorus of singers placed in the audience in front of the stage. Performing music by Bjork (arranged by lead singer Nicholas Ryan Gant) the nine- member chorus accompanied Abraham; who began in a crouched position on the floor in a circle of Azurite blue light. As if on a slow- moving carousel Abraham unfolded his body shifting position as Dan Scully’s light design expanded to eventually encompass the entire stage.
The choreography shifted between explosive passages to exploring the plastique of movement through sustained stillness. Abraham removed the sash that sequestered his shirt, and an offstage gust of wind surrounded him. Symbolically his motionless form was being propelled to a new metaphysical plain- a metamorphosis.
The evening concluded with Studies On A Farewell (2019 world premiere) an episodic ensemble work for eight dancers and choreographed by Abraham in collaboration with A.I.M. Set to Four Studies by Nico Muhly and performed live by Katherine Liccardo and Chelsea Starbuck Smith in tandem with a recorded track. The work depicted a series of encounters and partings tinged with a collective personal, almost autobiographic feeling. Jinakunwiphat slowly walking backward alone retreating upstage into the darkness culminating theballet and the evening.
Abraham continues to share his unique gift of abstract storytelling. The sophisticated and aesthetically satisfying A.I.M. New York season combined solid choreography with high production value.
In Photo: 2) Tamisha Guy, Marcella Lewis, Javon Jones, and Catherine Ellis Kirk 3) Marcella Lewis 4) Catherine Ellis Kirk 5) Kyle Abraham 6) Tamisha Guy and Javon Jones
Photo by: 1) Tatiana Wills 2) Sharen Bradford 3) Christopher Duggan 4, 5 & 6) Stephen Schreiber