D.C. DanceWatcher

2019 Danced: A Year of Watching

meredith monk cellular sounds

In a year of shutdowns and quid pro quo, #metoo and they, fake news and brutal losses in journalism, migration and detention, drain-the-swamp and impeachment, dance was a salvo and an appeasement in light of the incessant and depressing 24/7 news cycle of 2019.

But the good news prevailed: curtains still rose, lights continued to shine, choreographers created, dancers still danced, and audiences came and applauded. For all that, I am thankful.

My own 2019 dance year contained a few personal bests, including an invitation to take part in the Kennedy Center REACH opening programming on National Dance Day in September. For the free outdoor stage, I curated and narrated what was called a “D.C. Local Dance History Program.” In hindsight, a better title, perhaps “D.C. Dance Luminaries” or stars, would have made it sound sexier. I was fortunate to bring together under a single umbrella The Washington Ballet — performing an excerpt from choreographer Choo San Goh’s signature piece, the sleek neo-modern “Fives” — and Jones-Haywood School of Ballet. I even got a quick photo op with TWB AD Julie Kent and Jones-Haywood AD Sandra Fortune Green — probably a first. I was moved to bring Melvin Deal and his African Heritage Drummers and Dancers to a Kennedy Center stage for the first time.

Beyond that, I published a 2,500-word piece on the history and increasing popularity of Israeli contemporary dance artists around the world for Moment magazine.

And I continued to watch and write on dance. Here are my highlights from a year of highs and lows.

Orange Grove dance photo @evangelinaa_g

2019 began and ended with two of the most intriguing — and artistically different — programs featuring locally based choreographers. January 26-27 at Dance Place, Orange Grove Dance left me intrigued and wanting more from its evening-length Waking Darkness. Waiting Light. Filled with momentous moments of mystery, of dreams, of haunted memories and profound reflection, the four performers, including choreographers Colette Krogol and Matt Reeves, fill the work in ways that make this tightly knit piece feel expansive. With washes of light and hand-held coffee-tin spotlights, designed by Peter Leibold, and an atmospheric yet musical sound score by Dylan Glatthorn, along with Mark Costello’s projections that give the evening a noir-ish feel,  Waking Darkness. Waiting Light is both physically and emotionally athletic in parsing the netherworld of half-remembered dreams and unforgettable nightmares. The visceral approach to movement by Krogol, Reeves, Jonathan Hsu, and Juliana Ponguta let this work resonate deeply.

Another local best, also on view at Dance Place came late in 2019: tap dancer extraordinaire Baakari Wilder and director/choreographer Kerri Edge brought the searing REFORM: Racial Disparities in American Criminal Justice to Washington, D.C., November 23-24. Though still under development, the evening-length piece is a polemic — in the best sense — on the legacy that slavery and racism has wrought on our beloved United States. Featuring tappers Omar Edwards, Abron Glover and Joseph Webb joining Maryland-native Wilder, along with live jazz from the Dom Ellis Trio, REFORM is the type of piece on would expect in a year of so much political and social upheaval. This is a piece that aims to change audiences’ perspectives on race, racism, incarceration and institutional prejudice. Intermingled with live solo and accompanied tap numbers are torn-form-the-headlines or -history video clips: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Yusef Salaam, one of the young men accused of being a “Central Park Five” member.

Baakari Wilder photo-Michel Leroy (1)I heard chatter in the lobby after the show that tap was not an expressive medium to carry forth the heavy message this show imparts. But tap is exactly the appropriate genre to pull back the curtain on America’s long-standing racist and hate-filled roots. With its heavy-hitting footwork by Webb and Edwards, its lighter more nervous tremors from Wilder’s solo performed in prison stripes, to the chorus line of leggy beauties from the Divine Dance Institute, tap is exactly the right means to express the anxiety, fear despair and hope these men represent as they parse through the history of slavery, racism and discrimination in America. REFORM, in ways, reflects and moves past some of the methods and materials in the groundbreaking 1995 musical Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, of which Wilder is an alum, but REFORM feels more like a sequel, taking audiences further by immersing them in the ramifications of black-men’s actions that are still statistically more likely to land them in jail or dead, than their white counterparts. REFORM is difficult to watch and doesn’t leave audiences with much uplifting. Rather it’s a call to both acknowledgement — particularly for privileged audiences, white or otherwise — and action.

Two other works in 2019, too, left me feeling a sense of urgency to step forward and do something. At Dance Place February 16 and 17, Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women’s Hair & Other Stories, crafted from personal narratives from a wide-ranging tour of kitchens and living rooms, beauty shops and church basements, that demands audience members to ask who they are, where they stand and, ultimately, will they take a stand. With text, spoken word, narrative vignettes, video sequences and participatory sections, over nearly two-and-a-half hours, Hair & Other Stories becomes both a celebration of resilient black women and a challenge to outsiders. Co-choreographers (and UBW associate artistic directors) Chanon Judson and Samantha Spies lay out plenty of provocative concepts through song and dance, narrative and lecture, stylists’ props like pomades and combs. The performers’ rolling shoulders, undulating spines, bodies pulled earthward, fluttering arms and articulations of torsos, pumping knees, and raised fists draw from the lexicon of Africanist movement. And along with the equal purity of stillness and work gestures like sweeping, brushing, and stirring motions a variety of embodied cultures are braided into the choreographic language. As in any UBW concert, the audience is asked to stand, come down to the stage and move with and alongside the dancers. that draws from deeply planted roots. We’re told, and reminded, that this isn’t merely a performance: “This is the urgent dialogue of the 21st century.”

UBW_Hair & Other Stories_(c) Hayim Heron_Tendayi lower res

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater celebrated its 60th anniversary at the Kennedy Center Opera House with a glitzy opening night featuring hip-hop master Rennie Harris’s “Lazarus.” It was the company’s first two-part piece and the work is a companion, really a sequel, to Ailey’s masterwork, “Revelations,” which mined his own “blood memories” growing up in the African American church. While “Revelations” is a journey from slavery to renewal to a celebration of freedom in church, that tracks African American history, “Lazarus” picks up where Ailey left off, dealing forthrightly with the U.S. history of racism, the nation’s original — and ongoing — sin. Harris draws movement motifs from Africanist body language and the searing recognition of the continuing struggle — and triumph — of being black in America. For more see my review here.

AAADTs Jacqueline Green in Rennie Harris Lazarus. Photo by Paul Kolnik2

February also brought New York-based Zvi Dance to Dance Place February 9-10, performing his 2012 Dabke, previously seen in the area at the late American Dance Institute. In fusing the Arab folk dance typically performed in lines with hands clasped or arms around shoulders with contemporary dance, Zvi Gotheiner sets his dancers into patterns of complex rhythmic stomps, fierce and barefooted. Lines and groups play off and against each other, and groups and solos merge and fade, as snakelike lines intersect and disperse. There’s a harshness of attack that’s both thrilling and disconcerting and subtle, barely-there gestures a raised fist, steely gaze, the throwing of stones, or chest-bumping confrontation, suggest sparring, even uprising. That the Arab-born dabkah, merged into the bouncier less earth-bound debke in the Israeli folk dance community, also tells a story in this dance about cultural convergence and appropriation.

Beyond hometown presenters, a new work presented as part of the Kennedy Center’s signature Ballet Across America program intrigued me. The pair of programs May 28 – June 2 in the Opera House brought together Dance Theatre of Harlem and Miami City Ballet on separate evenings, and then, together, the two companies shared the world premier of Pam Tanowitz’s quirky, enigmatic, yet engrossing “Gustave Le Gray No. 1.” DTH offered up one of its classics, Geoffrey Holder’s sunny-hued Caribbean-inspired “Dougla” along with a presentable “Valse Fantaisie” by Balanchine. Miami City Ballet brought the little-seen Robbins/Tharp “Brahms/Handel,” smartly and lovingly performed, along with a sunny but slight work by Justin Peck, “Heatscape,” which probably plays well in sunny Miami.

Tanowitz’s “Gustave,” though, took ballet into the realm of post-modernist ideas. The spare piano score by Caroline Shaw, played by fearless Sylvia Jiang, set the four dancers, clad in Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s silky red tunics and pants. Shaw’s score was named for 19th-century French photographer Gray and it pings with staunch chords and equally staunch silences, then tinkles with a touch of, is that Chopin? The dancers are set on a cerebral course, there must be a written set of instructions somewhere detailing their squiggles, shakes, walking patterns, and formations as the four — Renan Cerdeiro, Lauren Fadeley, Anthony Santos and Stephanie Rae Williams — make their way across the stage. And, soon, the piano, and pianist, too, get in on the crossing. Yes, the dancers themselves push the piano across the stage — and, yes, Jiang continues to pluck out notes and chords, and once in her new spot, on the other side, one of the men carries out a piano bench for her to perch upon before the four gather ‘round like they might share a song to her accompaniment. When the curtain closes, it’s with a sigh of wonderment and regret, for, “Gustave Le Gray” was a piece d’occasion, likely never to be seen and wondered on again.

The Washington Ballet continued, under artistic director Julie Kent, to seek out new works for the ballet repertory. Its April 3-7 program at the Harman Center brought three, respectable, but not likely important new works to the stage. (Alas, I missed the fall program of new repertory.) Dana Genshaft’s “Shadow Lands,” with its glimmery sheer costumes and music for orchestra and recorded tracks by Kennedy Center composer-in-residence Mason Bates, already elevated the work. The balletic-based movement is clearly executed but it’s the far more subtle interactions that make this a piece to be seen again. Along with the eight dancers, two principal roles — the Observer, Javier Morera, and the Outlier, Katherine Barkman (the evening I attended) — suggest a story or at least a relationship, with meaningful looks and glances. Let’s hope this one gets another viewing to parse the piece.

Dana Genshaft Wash Ballet Gian-Carlo-Perez-and-Kateryna-Derechyna-900x516.png

And a mid-summer treat brought Meredith Monk and her vocal ensemble to the Rasmuson Theater at the National Museum of the American Indian, presented by the Hirshhorn Museum. Performing Cellular Songs: Concert Version, Monk, in her signature brown braids, was joined by three other voice artists and Allison Sniffin on voice, violin and keyboard. With Monk on keyboard and voice, the ensemble created rich sound sculptures along with a moving kaleidoscope of video scenarios designed by Monk and Katherine Freer. The all-female configuration of voices felt as if Monk has built an alternative society, damn the patriarchy. And as the singers, all clad in pure, crisp white, maneuvered around and across the stage in various geometric configurations, seated, standing, walking and pausing, they became a metaphor for being, a human kaleidoscope. There’s great mystery — even subversively so — in the way Monk builds on the beauty and significance of the voice — here solely female — in rising, alliterative, contrapuntal and choral rushes and diversions. Together with bodies and background videos moving together and in tandem Cellular Songs builds and subsides. And in the lingering hum of the final sung notes, before the audience applauds, there is enough air space for a collective breath. A sigh. Is it responding to the disappointing year we’ve had, or, maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign that everything might be all right. At the very least, that’s one way to move forward in the coming year.

Finally, I spent three weeks at the Dagara Music Center near Accra, Ghana, in July and August, studying African dance, drumming and gyl, African xylophone. This unforgettable and challenging experience emphasized for me that technique is highly valued in African dance, particularly from the Dagara people — the region the DMC emphasizes. The technique has little to do with body placement, turnout, leg and arm positions and head placement, athleticism or virtuosity — even when those values are often expected in African dance. Instead, musicality and rhythm are the key to technical proficiency and that was much, much harder than I anticipated. Staying on top of the beat and clapping on four-one, rather than one-two or one-three, took me a while to assimilate. Additionally, living in the DMC compound and going on excursions throughout the country enabled me to see the physicality Ghanaians embody in their daily lives: cooking, chopping, pounding, harvesting, carrying — anything and everything on their heads from baskets to once a sewing machine — sweeping, brick making, starting fires to cook on coals outdoors, pounding and grounding nuts and gourds. These work motions and gestures become the choreography. It was a beautiful ad unforgettable lesson on how beautifully bodies speak through and of culture.

 

Photos: Meredith Monk’s Cellular Sounds, photo Richard Termine
Orange Grove Dance in Waking Darkness. Waiting Light., photo @evangelina_g
Baakari Wilder in REFORM, photo Michael Leroy
Jacqueline Green in Rennie Harris’s Lazarus, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, photo Paul Kolnik
Tendayi Kuumba in Hair & Other Stories, Urban Bush Women, photo (c) Hayim Heron
The Washington Ballet’s Gian Carlo Perez and Kateryna Derechnya in Dana Genshaft’s “Shadow Lands,” photo Victoria Pickering

(c) 2019 Lisa Traiger, published December 30, 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.

Stop

Posted in Broadway, Contemporary dance, Hip hop, Jazz dance, Tap dance by lisatraiger on October 31, 2016

Freeze Frame … Stop the Madness
Directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C. 
October 27-30, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

debbieallen-freeze-frameEver since Debbie Allen parleyed a killer look in the 1980 movie “Fame” into a featured role on the popular television series, this triple threat has been busting open doors in Hollywood for women of color. The Texas-born, Howard University-trained dancer/singer/actress/director/choreographer has conquered Broadway, television, and film. She’s had a recent comeback on the popular CBS drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” and behind the camera she’s directed hit TV shows like “A Different World,” “Fame,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder,” to name a few. On “Fame,” of course, Allen played the hard-driving dance teacher who weekly said, “Fame costs. And right here you’ll start paying — in sweat.”

Allen’s connection to The Kennedy Center dates back to the ’90s with her high-energy dance-centric children’s musicals like Brothers of the Knight, a re-imagined version of the folktale The Twelve Dancing Princesses. This weekend Allen returns to The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater with her newest and most ambitious project to date: Freeze Frame … Stop the Madness. Five years in the making, this high-energy, hip-hop musical grew from the violence and disenfranchisement Allen saw on the streets of Los Angeles and heard about from students who experienced it first-hand at her Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles.

Freeze Frame is a 90-minute, intermissionless musical chock full of ripped-from-the-headlines issues: Gun violence, teen pregnancy, drug-addiction, gang warfare, police brutality, street crime, and prejudice. With an original score contributed by Rickey Minor, Lenny Wee, Thump (Allen’s son), James Ingram, Tena Clark, Wally Minko, Arturo Sandoval, Stevie Wonder, and Allen herself, the show is a pastiche of contemporary sounds — rap, blues, hip hop, spoken word, gospel, and pyrotechnic ballads and church hymns. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set evokes mean streets with harsh concrete-like pillars, ramps and steps that lead nowhere, with a series of screens where Mic Gruchy’s video projections (filmed and directed by Allen) lend a cinematic aura to some of the numbers and provide plot background.

A gunshot. A blackout. The flashing lights and wail of a police siren. These shock the audience into silence as a video of a convenience store robbery plays on the panels at the start of the show. Soon, though, the realistic grittiness of a violent crime in progress gives way to a band of dancing L.A. cops — all jazz hands, whipping pirouettes, fan kicks and body rolls, these dancers seem entirely out of character from that starkly realistic opening. Soon we meet David, aka Moon (Matthew Johnson), a well-shod and well-raised teenager, son of Bishop and Mrs. Washington, who run the largest Los Angeles megachurch. Broadway veteran (I Have a Dream, Your Arms Are Too Short to Box with God, and Dreamgirls) Clinton Derricks pulls out all the gospel stops as the high-strung holy man, building up his congregation’s — and the audience’s — spirits with the mighty force of powerful gospel-infused numbers. Allen, now solidly middle aged, plays Mrs. Washington with spirit and integrity in her wedge sandals.

Alas, Freeze Frame has too much going for it, and too much going on. The loose plot orbits around father-son friction and Allen has stuffed the show full of multiple vignettes, musical numbers and monologues that provide a snapshot and running commentary on life on the wrong side of the tracks in L.A. There’s the wannabe dancer Eartha (Vivian Nixon, Allen’s daughter), who has received a scholarship to the famed Alvin Ailey Dance Center, but her drug addicted single mother is holding her back. And Rosanna, a gang-banging, gun-toting grandmother keeping a watchful eye on her deaf and mute grandson (rubbery dancer Hunter Krikac), who is, one character noted, the neighborhood Diego Rivera, with a talent for graffiti art. William Wingfield’s searing monologue as The Collector, the neighborhood hoodlum, who is exacting revenge without care because of the abuse he suffered as a child, is probably one of the most chilling moments in the show.

There are scenes in the local high school during a class on African American poets interrupted by a police investigation, and another during a basketball game. A sweet playground sequence performed by six of Allen’s young students from her dance academy, brings out some cute and endearing moments about body image and budding boy-girl friends. But, ultimately, much of Freeze Frame, for all its good intentions, is overdone and as riddled with clichés as with hard truths about race and violence in our communities around the country. And that’s hard to say, because gun violence, street gangs, and police brutality are very real, but Allen has relied on old-fashioned storytelling, overly didactic songs and monologues, and derivative choreography instead tackling these hard issues in innovative ways.

That said, painfully, the message is clear: We must find a way to stop the violence. Black lives do matter. And we must remember those whose lives have been lost too soon. The most effective moments in Freeze Frame come after the dancers, singers, rappers, hip hoppers and musicians have left the stage. On those video screens, more than 500 names scroll by of victims of police and gang violence. The audience departs as the names continue. Freddy Gray. William Chapman. Louis Becker. Oscar Romero. Jared Johnson. It’s a sobering and heartbreaking commemoration of this ongoing cycle of violence in our nation. Only in the stillness and aftermath of this high strung, hyperactive 90 minutes, does the message hit home clearly, succinctly. These names exhort us to stop the madness.

This review was originally published October 28, 2016, on DC Metro Theatre Arts and is reprinted here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

A Year in Dance: 2014

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance, Dance theater, Hip hop, Modern dance by lisatraiger on January 3, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

Swan-Lake-100 corpsMy year 2014 in dance opened in January with the return of the now annually visiting Mariinsky Ballet to the Kennedy Center Opera House. Though the company brought Swan Lake, the company’s signature work – created on this most famous classical troupe by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1895 – was not what we saw. Instead the “Sovietized” Konstantin Sergeyev 1950 version, filled with pomp and additions startling for Western audiences (a second corps of black swans, for example, in the “white” act), was on offer. Ultimately, the true star was the singular corps de ballet. Who can resist the Mariinsky’s 32 perfectly synchronized white swans in act two? The impeccable Vaganova training remains one of the Mariinsky’s most essential hallmarks. Even standing still, the corps breathes together as one body; in stillness they’re dancing. The result is simply stunning and awe-inspiring, ballet at its best.

KAFIG-AGWA-Christopher_Duggan-001-300dpiCompagnie Kafig’s hip hop with a French accent and a circus flair rocked the Kennedy Center in February. Founded in 1996 by Mourad Merzouki in a suburb of Lyon, Kafig’s all-male troupe of athletic dancers flip and tumble, punching out percussive beats and floor work that toggle between their North African roots and b-boy street moves. Merzouki’s latest interest is capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian dance-cum-martial-art. His “Agwa” featured about 100 cups of water, arrayed in grids, poured and re-poured, along with plenty of circusy tricks and surprises. Hip hop dance has for a generation-plus moved beyond its inner-city, thug-life street demeanor; we see the results daily in popular culture, on television and in suburban dance studios. Kafig’s creative and expansive approach drawing from North African and Afro Brazilian rhythms and French circus opens up a whole new world for this home-grown vernacular form.

In April, Rockville’s forward-thinking American Dance Institute presented the legendary post modernist Yvonne Rainer. Now 79 and still making new work, Rainer is credited in the 1960s with coining the term post-modern for dance and as part of the experimental Judson Church movement taking dance into new, uncharted realms. She famously penned her “No” manifesto – “No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image” – which has become a de rigueur short reading for any young modern dancer looking to develop a choreographic voice. In it Rainer encouraged a re-thinking of dance without virtuosity, technique, story and beauty. Dance could be the “found movement” we see on the streets every day. For her evening at ADI’s blackbox theater, Rainer didn’t dance, but her five dancers, whom she lovingly dubbed her Raindears, did. “Assisted Living: Good Sports 2” and “Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money?” were recent, from 2011 and 2013 respectively. They were still steeped in Judsonian traits – lots of game-like patterns and structures as the Raindears jogged the stage like a ragged army of enlisted 5th graders on recess; a montage of unusual music and spoken sections, drawing from classics, opera, popular mid-20th century songs, readings and quotes on economics and more. A dancer drags a mattress, dancers hoist and carry other dancers like movers, Rainer reads and observes from a comfortable perch on an easy chair. First timers to this type of highly conceptual work might leave scratching their heads. But there’s a method to the madness and the accumulation of moments and movement quotes from ballet, tap and vaudeville at various points. Here we have the post-modern notion where everything counts: everything and the kitchen sink get thrown together to make a work. But there’s craft and method behind this madness, this everyone-in approach. Rainer, for me, built a structure that resonated deeply on an emotional level. This pair of works made me think of wrapping up a lifetime, and, more personally, of easing my own parents into their final years: packing up, putting away, remembering and forgetting, burying. This was post-modernism with a new level of poignancy. Though not narrative, it spoke to me in far-reaching ways. When I chatted with Rainer after, I told her how moved I was and how it made me think of my parents in their final years. She acknowledged that while in the studio creating, she was dealing with similar end-of-life issues with a dying brother. Even Rainer, the purest of post-modernists, has come to a place of remembrance and meaning in ways that were unforgettable.

mansur insert here 2One of the year’s most anticipated events was the re-opening of the region’s most prolific dance presenter, Dance Place, which has long been a mainstay of the now revitalizing Brookland neighborhood of northeast Washington. In June the site specific piece “INSERT [ ] HERE” inaugurated the newly renovated studio/theater. Sharon Mansur, a University of Maryland College Park dance professor, and collaborator Nick Bryson, an Ireland-based independent artist and improviser, fashioned a site-specific piece that took small groups through the space – introducing both the public areas like the studio/theater and spacious new lobby to never seen recesses like the dank underground basement, the artists’ new dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms and a long narrow corridor of open desks where most of the staff put in their hours. Audience members were allowed to meander and pause, take note of a moment beneath the bleachers where Baltimore choreographer Naoko Maeshiba was part girl-child zombie, part Japanese butoh post-apocalyptic figure. Upstairs in a rehearsal room, Mansur and Bryson parsed out parallel neatly improvised solos that reflected and spoke through movement to each other. In a dressing area former D.C. improviser/choreographer Dan Burkholder fashioned his movement phrases with silky directness amid a room of candles and found natural objects. The main stage filled with a wash of dancers sweeping in with celebratory bravado: An auspicious, memorable, and entirely perfect way to christen the space.

Long-time D.C. stalwart Liz Lerman, who decamped from her own Takoma Park-based company the Dance Exchange in 2011, returned to the area with another broadly encompassing work, Healing Wars, which had its world premiere at Arena Stage’s intimate Cradle in May. The audience was welcomed in through the stage door, where a “living museum” of characters – Clara Barton penning letters, a Civil War soldier splayed on a kitty corner hospital cot, a woman pouring water libation as a spirit of a runaway slave, and the very real veteran of the recent war in Afghanistan, Paul Hurley, a former U.S. Navy gunner’s mate and graduate of Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C., conversing with Hollywood actor Bill Pullman. Healing Wars examines war, injury, death, and recovery from multiple perspective spanning two centuries: the Civil War era and the 21st century. This was entirely and exactly Lerman’s wheelhouse. The piece was didactic, thought provoking, head scratching all at once. And it does what movement theater should: inspire and challenge. Lerman was determined with this project to bring the present day wars and their aftermaths home for America’s largest and most divisive war, the Civil War, touched nearly every household. By drawing together these disparate but not dissimilar historical moments, along with the science, medical advances, politics and, of course, personal experiences, Lerman has contemporary audiences reflect that as individually painful as war traumas are, the suffering that results is our nation’s burden to bear. Lerman, here, through her compelling dance theater underscored the gravity of that burden.

In September, Deviated Theatre returned to Dance Place with a steampunk quest story envisioned by choreographer Kimmie Dobbs Chan and director Enoch Chan. For the evening-length Creature, the costumes — wings, netting and accoutrements draped and shaped by Andy Christ with second act headpieces full of wire-y netting and fanciful shapes by Dobbs Chan — are astonishing. The dancing here was among the best technically of the locally based dance troupes this year. The primarily female cast stretches like Gumbies, soars from an aerial hoop, maneuvers on two legs or four limbs, crab walking, crawling, scooting, loping in bug-like, inhuman ways. Though the apocalyptic fairy tale meanders, the oddball weirdness – eerie, esoteric, eclectic – that Chan and Chan invent continues to endear.

reshimoOctober brought a troupe from Israel, where contemporary dance continues to be a hotbed of creativity. Vertigo Dance from Jerusalem brought choreographer Noa Wertheim’s Reshimo, with its company of nine unfettered dancers who take viewers on an emotional journey. “Reshimo,” a term from Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism – suggests the impression light makes, the afterimage. The 55-minute work presented an ever-evolving landscape of singular movement statements, accompanied by Ran Bagno’s rich and varied musical score, which modulates between violin, cello, synthesizers and kitschy retro-pop selections. Sexy trysts, playful romps, casual walks and a moment of frisson, explosive and shattering, fully animate the choreographic voice filling the work with resonant ideas.

Gadi-Dagon-(prog_SADEH21)2My year in dance ended on a high note, another company from Israel: the country’s most intriguing, Batsheva Dance Company based in Tel Aviv, returned to the Kennedy Center’s Opera House in November with the area premiere of Sadeh21. The work, by the company’s prolific and long-time choreographic master Ohad Naharin, shows off the dancers’ distinctive abilities to inhabit and embody movement in all its capacities. “Sadeh,” Naharin told me, means field, as in field of study, and the work unspools in vignettes or scenes – some solos, some duets or small groups, some full the company – which are labeled by number on the half-high back wall, the set designed by Avi Yona Bueno. Moments funny and disturbing, sexy and silly include movement riffs that combine the refined and the repulsive, an extended sequence of screaming, another where the men in unison ape and stomp like fools in flouncy skirts. Naharin’s music, like his rangy movement, is erratic, shifting from classical to pop, severe to silly to sweet in game-like fashion. The set design, that imposing back wall, is freighted with multiple meanings. A wall in Israeli context recalls both the ancient Western Wall — the supporting wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. But in contemporary terms the wall suggests the one built by the Israeli government to separate Israel proper from the West Bank. Both a protection and a burden, it’s a constant reminder that peace remains an achingly elusive ideal. For Naharin, the on-stage wall literally became a jumping off point. Dancers scrambled up, stood atop the ledge and dove into the inky blackness. That ending is simply gorgeous. Again and again, dive after dive, were they leaping to their freedom, to their deaths, or were they doves, soaring skyward? Continuously, as the music faded and the lights rose, credits rolled like a movie on the wall, as dancers climbed and dove. A taste of infinity. From earth to heaven and back again. I could have watched those final moments forever, they felt so raw, yet whole, risky but real. Final but indefinite. Life as art. Art as life. Batsheva ended my year in dance on a soar.

Lisa Traiger writes frequently on dance, theater and the arts. You may read her work in the Washington Jewish Week, Dance magazine and other publications.

(c) 2015 Lisa Traiger

Sands of Time

Posted in Dance, Hip hop, Performance art, Tap dance by lisatraiger on July 16, 2010

Keepin’ It Moving: The Legacy of Sandman Sims
Choreography and direction by Holly Bass
9th Annual Hip-Hop Theater Festival
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
July 10, 2010

By Lisa Traiger

© 2010 Lisa Traiger

Past and future mingled, albeit uncomfortably, in Holly Bass’s “Keepin’ It Moving: The Legacy of Sandman Sims.” The tribute to great tap dance showman Howard “Sandman” Sims strung together vignettes intended to trace the evolution of the indigenous American percussive form from its early days as buck and wing, to its heyday in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, through its evolution into break dancing and hip hop. An installment in the 9th annual DC Hip-Hop Theater Festival, the 80-minute performance featured a range of Washington, D.C.-based dancers with expertise in tap, hip hop and breaking, joined by spoken word artists, all accompanied by onstage by deft dj Soyo. By rejigging the Dance Place black box, with a portion of the audience sitting on stage and a section of the chairless bleachers left empty for performers to dance on, Bass gave the evening an interactive flavor, copasetic with the hip-hop theater aesthetic. Unfortunately, sight lines for those with onstage seating were less than ideal and those in the traditional bleachers seemed quite a distance from the interactive stage.

Bass can be an engaging performer and her one-woman character-driven performance pieces, among them “Diary of a Baby Diva,” are astute, jewel-like studies that reveal kernels of universal truths awash with pop culture icons. When, as in “Diva,” she engagingly refers to specific cultural moments, her works succeed best — the particular hitch kick of a 1970s “Solid Gold” TV dancers, or the elegant grace of a besotted Diana Ross wannabe. Then her work becomes freighted with resonant universality, a lesson that much good theater relies on: at its heart, as different as we are on the surface, beneath the specific historical, cultural or personal baggage we carry, humans are more alike than different.

"Keepin' It Moving: The Legacy of Sandman Sims," photo Joshua Cogan

Sandman Sims (1981-2003) trod the boards at the Apollo Theater for decades as “the executioner,” holding court on amateur night with a broom, a hook and soft shoes when scores of hopefuls would air their talents. Awaiting the nervous claque: a mercenary crowd that could boo even the most earnest, if off key singer. Sims learned the tap trade on the streets, for then it was a vernacular form, much the way hip hop, too, evolved a generation or two ago on street corners and nightclubs. Like tap, which in its heyday was appropriated by white performers on the vaudeville circuit, then on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals, hip hop has also gained commercial agency on television, in movies and videos and as a genre taught at nearly every local store front dance studio across suburbia. In “Keep It Moving” Bass tries valiantly to connect the dots between the vernacular rhythm tap of Sims’s generation with the b-boys and fly girls of the 21st century. The point is a salient one. It’s just been done before — and better on Broadway. Savion Glover’s 1995 collaboration with George Wolfe on “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” trod the same path, although it brought hip hop into the tap vernacular, rather that foisting tap onto hip hoppers, which seems Bass’s intent.

While Bass is not a tapper (although she does a respectable Lindy Hop at one point), her trio of women tappers – Melissa Frakman, Quynn Johnson and Alyse Jones — riff on the Sandman Sims legacy. They offer up some unison bars, then Frakman mediates on a phrase from the 1979 documentary “No Maps on My Taps,” which helped spur the revival of interest in old school rhythm tappers. On a sheet of rolled out white paper, Frakman dips her heeled tap shoes into plates of paint brushing, stomping and dotting her feet in a moving scroll of lines, squiggles, dots and dashes across the blank canvas. Abstract expressionist footprints lending a different voice for feet to speak. Later the trio painstakingly prepares shallow plywood boxes, then as sand slips through their fingers, they replicate the scraping, rough hewn music Sims made famous in his signature sandpapery dance. Sims, though, typically danced in soft shoes, not taps, which create a tinnier sound. When four (unnamed) members of the Beat Your Ya Feet Kings crew displayed their rubbery limbed breaking, popping, locking and acrobatic feats, the crowd approved, as they did when rapper Tabi Bonney offered a DC original rap, “The Pocket,” with its funky go-go-esque syncopations indigenous to the District music scene.

The 80-minute evening’s highlight comes late, after the some stilted narration on the Apollo scene, a mock Lindy Hop competition, a sad-clown miming caricatured Sandman as stage manager, and a few hip hop numbers. A mock Apollo amateur night soars when Luke Spring, looking ready for church in his blue blazer and pressed trousers, nonchalantly takes the stage. With a seriousness of purpose set on his face, he takes to the raised wooden platform, where he breaks it down, laying on rhythm after syncopated rhythm, his neatly combed blond hair bobbing with his shuffles, tremolos, stomps, old school time steps, Cincinnatis, over the tops and paddle and rolls. Spring is seven. Seven years old. Yet, he essentially schools every dancer on the stage with an innate rhythmic awareness that is remarkable for one so young. The future of tap certainly looks brighter with Spring. What didn’t resonate in Bass’s tribute to great old school tapper Sims, the evening’s namesake, was the man himself. Sims’s life was long and interesting, hard but lived to its fullest. He wasn’t always successful as a tap dancer, at least not enough to support a family, but he found a way to keep himself and his family going, while continuing to dance. That tenacity and devotion – to his family and his art – is the legacy for which Sims should be remembered. That the old-time rhythm tappers paved the way for the Lindy Hoppers, the breakers and hip hoppers of succeeding decades is a story that has been told. While Bass found tap’s future, she hasn’t yet succeeded in telling the story of its illustrious past.

Published July 16, 2010

© 2010 Lisa Traiger