D.C. DanceWatcher

The Wisdom of Hair

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Dance theater, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 28, 2019

Hair & Other Stories
Urban Bush Women
Dance Place
Choreography: Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis
and the UBW company
Washington, D.C.

February 16-17, 2019

By Lisa Traiger

UBW_Hair & Other Stories_(c) Hayim Heron_Tendayi lower res

Don’t think you’re going to sit back and observe if you show up at Urban Bush Women’s latest, Hair & Other Stories, which made its Washington, D.C., premiere this past weekend at Dance Place. Oh no. Read the program notes and then hear the urgency in the company dancers’ voices, when they say: “Don’t get too comfortable …. We’re goin’ on a journey.”

Hair — African-American women’s hair in particular, with all its baggage as “good” or “bad” — serves as the core narrative construct, but Hair & Other Stories is about much, much more. And I’ll preface this review with my own hesitation as a possessor of so-called “good” hair, typically long (though I recently got a cut) and straight, should I be writing this review? Does my hair texture and skin color — my white privilege — preclude me from sharing my point of view, my understanding? (Let me know in the comments if you have thoughts.)

The two-and-a-half-hour evening plays as part church revival, part dance party, part therapeutic reckoning, part history lesson (including a letter to Madame C. J. Walker, the first African American female millionaire who plied her trade in hair relaxers). And it is wholly and fully engaging of mind, body and spirit for those willing to hop on the train to a future that co-choreographers Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis and the company envision, one where the racist roots of the United States are reckoned with so healing can begin.

Crafted from personal narratives culled from the performers and from participants in Hair Party workshops the company held around the country asking black and other women to talk about their hair and more at community centers, churches, kitchen tables, the work throws out a challenge to all those willing to take it:

Re-think what you thought you knew about race, beauty, class, and privilege. But it comes with a caveat: “You don’t have to leave the same way you came in.” Think of Hair & Other Stories as a permanent haircut or dye job for your intellect and soul.

The Brooklyn-based company, which now includes men — two in this performance — was founded in 1984 by visionary storyteller and social activist Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. UBW draws on the bedrocks of contemporary and African dance, song and spoken word weaving together personal and universal narratives that wrestle with the history and challenges of being black and living in America. Throughout the two-part evening, performers address the audience, drawing from the powerful Undoing Racism workshops that the New Orleans-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond conducts around the country. UBW and the institute have long been collaborative partners in educational settings, but never has the fundamental and life-changing material of the workshops been so specifically incorporated into a UBW performance.

The evening begins as an all-out revival meeting. The sing-song preacherly DuBois A’Keen is joined by Tendayi Kuumba and Courtney J. Cook who take an instructive approach, easing audience members into what it means to go through life in with nappy or “bad” hair. All black women are called on to stand in solidarity for the indignities they have faced on playgrounds and on the job for having unmanageable or “different” hair. White women, too, with so-called “silky” locks, are asked to stand with the exhortation: “Let the winds of change blow in your hair.” Indeed.

Early on, a table filled with pomades, oils, gels, and combs indicates some styling might take place. A careful eye will tease out the intricate wrist and finger actions it takes to braid hair. Recollections of suffering under the hot comb for silky straight styles elicit plenty of nods from parts of the audience. The women especially, in their eclectic 21st-century boho costumes by DeeDee Gomes, appliqued with sequins, patches, fringes, and other piecemeal findings, lend a timeless quality to the proceedings. Stories and histories are drawn through embodied movement culling from the lexicon of Africanist dance — rolling shoulders, undulating spines, bodies pulled earthward, fluttering arms and articulations of torsos, pumping knees, and more recent raised fists. Moments of stillness and everyday work — sweeping, brushing, stirring motions — also braid their way into the choreographic language that draws from deeply planted roots.

At one point when the performers address colorism — the valuing of lighter skin over darker skin in the African-American community and the white community — the dancers vigorously use their hands to brush their limbs and torsos as if trying to wash away their own skin. And then, as they line up and pause, breathless after those frantic seconds, the realization comes: they have arranged themselves by skin tone, from darkest to lightest.

Throughout the swift-moving program, all are called on to move — audience as well as performers. Raise an arm, wiggle in your seat, stand in solidarity or come down to the stage, the dance floor and feel in your body the weight of racism, colorism, white privilege and prejudice as it seeps into in your bones, muscles, roots, and scalp.

Lanky powerhouse Chanon Judson tackles a vignette with a trio of “Elevator Hell Stories.” In one she walks into an elevator filled with African Americans who all want her to take a comb to her unruly hair. When the scene is repeated with white riders, they all “love” her look and reach out to touch her hair. Later, she stands on a pedestal, wraps herself in black paper and dons an oversized white top hat — recalling images of Jim Crow or Master Juba. Rooted to the pedestal Judson writhes, ripping away the paper, shedding skin perhaps, filled with taunts and pain, to reveal a renewed body … and spirit.

Joining the cast, Judson’s very young daughter, maybe three years old, moves with child-like assurance, following along, taking an adult’s hand, stepping out of a baby swaddling like a pro. Early on someone brushes down her edges, the soft baby hair at her hairline, with a toothbrush, later during a wickedly sharp scene featuring black and white Barbies in a conversation about white privilege played for adult sensibilities, she settles into her grandmother’s lap in the audience clutching a Barbie. Her moments on stage are a reminder that more’s at stake than the here and now. Judson’s daughter reinforces the Hair & Other Stories hopeful message: That she will grow up free from prejudices about hair and skin and beauty. (Parenthetically this child’s presence also shows us it’s possible to make creative work and raise a family.) The other excellent performers include Stephanie Mas, Ross Daniel (who represents an enlightened white person on this journey), Love Muwwakkil and Cyrah Ward.

It’s a wish-filled message in an evening that requires work — the hard work of reflection. Co-creators Judson and Speis call it “the urgent dialogue of the 21st century.” At Dance Place, the listening, responses, and contributions to the discussion, the call-and-response, felt active and engaged. The work itself is a conversation, one that occurs on a continuum. And one that for many will continue beyond the final bows.

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.

Photos: Courtesy Dance Place, top Tendayi Kuumba; bottom, UBW company, (c) Hayim Heron
(c) Lisa Traiger 2019

Past and Future Share Stage: Ailey Company’s ‘Revelations’ and ‘Lazarus’

Posted in Hip hop, Modern dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 8, 2019

A cough, a gasp, the sound of a heartbeat. A sudden flash in the darkness. These sounds and images begin “Lazarus,” the brand-new work from hip hop master Rennie Harris, which opened a glitzy celebration of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 60th anniversary at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The roiling evening presented the company’s first two-part ballet – throughout his career, Ailey called his decidedly modern works ballets. The combination of “Lazarus” and the “blood memories” of “Revelations” took the well-heeled audience on a journey through the hard and heartless history of being black in the United States, where slavery and segregation remain our nation’s original sin. At the close, though the audience roared its approval, those first gasps and the searing images of suffering remain. And both are as integral to the Ailey essence as to our American tale.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Rennie Harris' Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Bathed in dim light by James Clotfelter, the Ailey dancers toggle between an exaggerated slow walk, a quick-footed buck-and-wing, and stark stillness. The dancers stand, their shoulders hunched over, heads drooping.

And suddenly, a vision of the “strange fruit” of lynched bodies hanging from poplar trees elicits a gasp, this time from knowing observers. This is how “Lazarus” works its magic: Harris maneuvers his shifting movement tableaux calling on embodied images of the wretchedness of being black in America. From the agonizing image of Eric Garner, cuffed and gasping for air, crying “I can’t breathe,” to snapshots of hunched bodies, doubled over from exhaustion, physical and spiritual, to the Hollywood-ized visions of a “happy Negro” singing and dancing for his supper, Harris has collected the visual atlas of the immoral subjugation of a people.

A Philadelphia native who grew up on the rough streets of North Philly, he has spent decades bringing vernacular street dance forms to concert stages around the world with his own renowned company, making hip hop theatrical and imbuing it with messages of despair and hope. Harris knows his history, of course, but he knows, too, how to capture in movement images the harsh and inscrutable essence of being black in America.

This is the heart and soul of “Lazarus,” which the Ailey company commissioned as a tribute to its founder, Mr. Ailey, who lives on through the choreography he gave his dancers and through a now powerhouse dance organization. The piece, too, serves as a rejoinder to Ailey’s own seminal choreography, “Revelations,” which takes viewers on a similar spiritual and historical journey from slavery to renewal to revival in its three well-known sections.

“Revelations” has been the company’s bread-and-butter for decades, enticing audiences in for the reverence of this finale, and giving them a swath of newer works that toggle between contemporary modern dance, curated by current artistic director Robert Battle, and Ailey classics, some still resonant, others a bit faded. The much-admired company’s 60-year history can, in part, be attributed to the popularity and influence of “Revelations,” which sparks whoops, nods and clap-alongs for the familiar gospel songs and spirit-infused dancing entrances audiences year after year. Akin to ballet classics like Swan Lake, “Revelations,” it seems, never gets old. Alas, it is not always expertly performed. Opening night, it felt a little subdued coming right after the far heavier dramatic arc that “Lazarus” rides. Perhaps the dancers were spent after throwing down their hypersensitive and kinetic performance of the two-parter.

When seen next to “Lazarus,” with its far more trenchant — and realistic — look at the African-American experience, “Revelations” feels more than a little old-fashioned. The near-ancient Graham technique — contractions of the pelvis as the back curves, either smoothly or percussively — lateral side tilts, and running triplet steps, looks quaint next to Harris’s more sophisticated fusion of street dance coupled with modern techniques and gestural references.

That’s not to say Ailey’s masterwork should be retired. To the contrary, the two works serve as instructive companion pieces when seen together. In fact, Harris is filtering Aileyisms into the work right alongside his sly references to the Dougie, the Nae Nae, and the Dab. In “Lazarus,” Harris seems to be wrestling to uncover not just Ailey, the choreographer, but  Ailey the man, who put his heart and soul into his choreographic ventures and navigating the world as a black man amid the peak of the Civil Rights movement and into the 1970s and ‘80s.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Rennie Harris' Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

In “Lazarus,” Harris, like Ailey before him, alludes to Biblical elements. The story goes that though dead for four days, Jesus resurrects Lazarus, the miracle foreshadowing the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. In “Lazarus,” though, the struggle, the agony of oppression, is told in grim, gritty segments of movement montages. A group of women harvest an invisible crop, drawing sustenance from the earth, tucking it into their bundled aprons. Another clump of dancers falls to their knees, hands clasped in prayer, trembling — for salvation from God or man? Bare-chested men, their pants held up with a cord of rope, collapse, others drag these lifeless bodies off stage.

Harris shows us the burden of history, the weight of living — and dying — black in America. The piercing cries — ululations — punctuate Darrin Ross’s wide-ranging score, along with other equally harsh sound effects including gunshots, screams, and weeping. This first part of “Lazarus” pushes viewers beyond the dichotomous earth-and-heaven pull of Ailey’s first sections of “Revelations,” “Pilgrim of Sorrow.” Alas, in Ross’s sound score, the earlier voiceovers are almost indecipherable over pulsating underscoring. Some of the words are Ailey’s own, others are from Harris.

Harris takes the simplified slavery-to-freedom narrative of his progenitor and reflects on it with a more jaded 21st-century mindset. Harris doesn’t take us to the water, he takes us into the mud. As dancers lay prone, their arms undulating as so many rows of corn or wheat waving in a field, one dancer navigates through this thicket of bodies. That image ends part one and begins part two.

On their return, the dancers are no longer in early to mid-20th-century streetwear — A-lined skirts, slacks, overalls, or sweaters of muted earth tones. Their bare feet are now ensconced in black sneakers, while they’ve donned costume designer Mark Eric’s purple and burgundy club wear. The heaviness of Act 1 lifts with a song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as prone bodies rise from that reedy bog. Their hands beseech in prayer, and tremor with hope or trepidation. As drums pound out a samba-style beat, groups of dancers, first men, then women, catch the heat of the beat, heads bob, hips twitch, feet shuffle in swift kick ball changes. And as in all Harris works, the dance becomes a spirit-filled experience.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performs Rennie Harris' Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

This is where Harris finds soul and purpose, letting the dancers loose to deliver a free-flowing, dynamic sequence drawing allusions to prayer, church and praise dancing in a raised arm, a hand waving, hunched shoulders giving way to uplifted faces. Top-rocking shuffles crisply done pound the sleepy ground awake beneath the dancers’ feet. It’s a churchy revival of 21st-century proportions and sentiments – baptisms beside the point. Purification, cleansing comes from the dance itself, bodies pushing, reaching, flinging, falling, roiling with Harris’s trademark hip hop. Men cartwheel one-armed up from the floor and women tangle up in pretzel shapes, then skitter.

The tension releases. We’ve been waiting for these few powerful, spirit-filled moments the entire evening. We just didn’t know it. While the 16 dancers power through eye-catching mini-solos that feel improvised (but likely aren’t), the audience is encouraged to clap along. In our red velvet seats, we’re momentarily part of the circle — in hip hop terms, the cypher — ready to take a turn with a cool spin or fancy kick. They’re not dancing for us, they’re dancing us.

Harris leads his dancers and onlookers almost to the metaphorical mountaintop, but not quite. A sudden break — it felt like a false ending — gives pause. The stage darkens. The dancers gather close, then one lone man, in silhouette, walks away. Is it Ailey resurrecting? Is it Lazarus? Ailey’s distinctive recorded voice reminisces about what compelled him to create — those “blood memories,” recalling what it was like to grow up black, poor but God-fearing, in small-town Texas.

“Lazarus” does not sugarcoat. Harris’s celebratory sequences feel more real than the easy climax of Ailey’s church-infused “Revelations.” In contrast to the historical images wedded into the collective unconscious of even the most modest student of American history, this homage to Ailey, the man and the creative force, focuses an unforgiving lens on the realities of being black in America today. That was Ailey’s story and his wellspring. Side by side, “Revelations” and “Lazarus” converse about despair and hope, past and future, tradition and innovation. And, of course, the indomitable spirit Alvin Ailey carried, which is now lighting the way to a new generation.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including two 15-minute intermissions.

Photos: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Rennie Harris’ “Lazarus,” photos by Paul Kolnik, courtesy Kennedy Center.