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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 that dates back to the ’90s with her high-energy children’s dance-centric 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 sounds 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 tell 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 piece 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 seeped with Judsonian traits – lots of game-like patterns and structures as the Raindears jogged the stage like an 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 and the dancing among the best technically of the locally based dance troupes. 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 Eisenhower Theater 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, 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, and the final ending, simply gorgeous. 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 idea, 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 climbed it, stood atop it and dove into the inky blackness of the stage. Again and again, were they leaping to their freedom, to their deaths, or were they doves, soaring? Continuously, as the music faded and the lights rose, credits rolled like a movie on the wall, 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