D.C. DanceWatcher

Change Maker

Posted in African dance, Contemporary dance, Dance theater, Jazz dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on November 18, 2016

What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice
Choreography by Vincent Thomas
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
Nov. 12-13, 17, 19-20, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Walking into Dance Place for the world premiere of choreographer and dancer Vincent Thomas’s What’s Going On: Life, Love, and Social Justice, an homage to Marvin Gaye, the great Northeast D.C. native who became a iconic singer during the 1960s and ‘70s. But the piece is more than a bio-dance commemorating Gaye, it’s akin to a 21st century piece of agit prop. No one should leave the theater unchanged or unmoved for it’s both a celebration and lament. Dancers — barefoot and clad in white — and audience gathered in the lobby for a little warm-up trivia led by Thomas in his soothing voice. Of course, it wasn’t long before the whole crowd was dancing — a little home grown D.C. hand dancing then a full-on electric slide. We danced our way into the theater, and the grooving didn’t stop for two hours.

vincent-thomas-whats-going-onAnd yet, amid all that festivity, there was also deep introspection. What’s Going On is a look inside to reveal where we are — as individuals, as a community, as a nation and a global village.

The festive atmosphere reached a high as onlookers took their seats at Dance Place, and the dancers took to the stage with soul-pumping and heart-racing dances drawing from African roots. With choreographic assistance from Sylvia Soumah or Mama Sylvia, D.C.’s undisputed queen of African dance, the group of 17 dancers and drummers captured the essence of a celebratory communal dance, with cheers, hollers and friendly competition, shoulders rolling, hips shimmying, knees pumping, arms slicing and winding, torsos pulsating. This semicircle of dancers recalled the profound embodied language that remains an elemental part of the African-American community, from its churches to its social clubs to its unparalleled performance aesthetic to its family and communal gatherings.

This was the world Marvin Gaye was born into, deeply religious, rooted to the past, but looking to the future. The son of a Pentecostal minister, who preached at a strict House of God church, he grew up singing, encouraged by his mother. He chafed, though, under his father’s restrictions. Gaye came of age as the Motown sound was evolving and three octave vocal range and a body of unforgettable songs left an indelible mark on American popular culture.

Dancer/choreographer Thomas was inspired by one of Gaye’s hits, What’s Going On, to look back at the singer’s life and his legacy and to delve into today’s current events, forcing viewers to pose a rejoinder — “what am I going to do about our current state of affairs.” Two years in the making, how could Thomas know how timely and prescient this piece would be just four days after the most contentious election in recent memory. Continuing ideas and structures he explored in his 2014 evening-length work, Occupy confronted ripped-from-the-headlines issues including stagnating economic opportunities, disparities between haves and have-nots, and the globalization of the economy. What’s Going On treads similar territory but in a further fleshed out and meaningful manner. Here Thomas actually invites the audience to respond, interact, consider their own next steps.

A moving, heartfelt solo, danced by Thomas, who stretches and spirals his torso and lanky arms, in search of something — comfort, connection, a higher power — features a movingly sung version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” And this, like the many vignettes in the work, is preceded by a slide featuring quotes by and about Gaye.

Looking back to Gaye’s era, and the mobs of teen and adult fans who were touched and changed by his music, Thomas takes us to a typical 1960s or ‘70s house party — featuring low lights, mod furniture (in a video backdrop designed by Sujan Shrestha, couples and groups of dancers bobbing trucking, flirting and embracing. But the dance gatherings were more than a fun night out. Thomas notes, via slide, “this social dancing was their social justice.” It was a way African Americans could connect with and proudly own their cultural heritage, amid the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war era and the post-war disenchantment of the 1970s. And Gaye’s voice became their own.

On the old-school record player, spinning LPs, “Hitch Hike” blares and the dancers again turn to celebration. Here their moves echo those featured in the African segment of the show, but they’re smoother, jazzier, more showy, to allow for teasing. They dance — as everyone does — to celebrate youth, beauty, joy, love, but they also dance to connect. The eight company dancers, in pairs, small groups and as a company, show off their moves and stamina to classics like “Funny Valentine,” an achy solo full of inconsolable reaches and stretches and tremoring hands fluttering over the dancer’s heart. Then they stage a Motown revue — lip-syncing of classic numbers, recalling Al Green and The Supremes, among others — with plenty of step-ball-changes, fan kicks and jazzy moves. It’s fun unencumbered and rather slight, although the men’s trio has some high power leaps and spins.

Before intermission or a “social interlude,” as Thomas called it, placard-bearing dancers entered the audience, their signs asking: “Where are your community’s celebrations?” and “What are the concerns in your community?” Audience members were encouraged to fill mini-placards with their thoughts and and responses before What’s Going On turns to far more discordant 21st century territory. Here Thomas includes slides of historic 20th century moments and icons — Martin Luther King, Jr., Equal Rights Amendment marches of the 1970s, Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, and others. The dancers, now clad in muted taupe, no longer dance freely and joyfully. Their body language is muted and pained, filled with grasping, deep, despondent sights, and of-the-moment symbolic gestures – performed before a video of Gaye singing the national anthem in 1983. Raised “black power” fists — the dap — and wrists held together behind the back are as telling as a dancer kneeling and another, fully prostrate in a Muslim prayer-like bow.

Thomas returns to again speak to the audience, allowing them brief time and space to voice their own concerns — among them fear of a Trump presidency, clean water, classicism, rich people who don’t pay taxes, job opportunities and more. Diversity, new life, unity, freedom, respect and Dance Place were called out for celebration. Then Thomas — like his mentor, Liz Lerman, who made her name in combining dance and community activism — turned the question around, asking, “How can you turn your concerns into celebrations?”

As the company converges to dance together in a tight-knit clump, the screen projects today’s images: Syrian refugees, police shootings of black citizens, Somali refugees, poor, impoverished masses, close-ups of wounded children from various conflicts. Each photo compels us to do more than watch. What’s Going On is a necessary reminder that there is more work to be done to repair the world.

This review originally appeared in the online publication DC Metro Theatre Arts and is reprinted here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

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 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

Serving Food for Thought … and Cake

Posted in Broadway, Contemporary dance, Dance, Jazz dance, New performance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on March 13, 2016

“Happy Hour”
Monica Bill Barnes & Company 
Terrace Gallery, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C. 
March 10-11, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

Moncia Bill Barnes_Happy Hour_Courtesy of the Kennedy Center 1

Monica Bill Barnes and Ann Bass, courtesy Kennedy Center

In life some things that are easy look hard and others that are hard look easy. That’s also the case for choreographer and dancer Monica Bill Barnes, whose party-cum-commentary on masculinity and femininity, success and failure, connection and anonymity, among other things, brightened up the drab Terrace Gallery setting, upstairs in The Kennedy Center March 11. The small but mighty Monica Bill Barnes & Company has taken it upon themselves to spice up people’s lives with playful but pointed in-jokes that provide layers of depth and insight. What on the surface seems like simple off-the-cuff unplanned sequences, is far, far deeper.

Barnes and Ann Bass, her associate artistic director, fellow performer and partner in crime, champion the underdog while culling from a tastefully curated selection of American dance styles, mainly jazz, theater dance, tap and a tad of ballet and modern thrown in. But it’s not so much the steps and choreography — which are themselves often a hoot, smartly selected and dazzlingly performed — but the way they attack the movement. There’s a sense of going all out and over the top, of dancing for life itself. Sometimes Bass’s neck strains, or Barnes’s eyeballs pop, as droplets of sweat form on their brows and they fling themselves completely into quick, goofy phrases that look so easy yet are anything but. They’re working their hardest for our pleasure. You can’t help loving them for their all-out effort, especially in a workaholic town like metropolitan DC, where the only right answer to “how are you” is “busy, way too busy.”

Happy Hour starts with the conceit of the title. The Terrace Gallery is set with 30 cocktail tables. The company reportedly ran out and bought $200 worth of snacks – microwave popcorn, a box of Cheerios, an extra-large size of gummy vitamins, mini candy bars and a tub of pretzel rods. The room is decorated in a baby blue balloons and crepe paper streamers hung like a six-year-old’s birthday party. Robert Saenz de Viteri acts as the MC and maitre d’ for a “pre-show” that is as much a part of the performance as the dancers, handing out snacks from a rolling production cart artfully labeled “Production Cart” in glitter. He works the crowd getting to know his audience, milking them for self-deprecating laughs. A karaoke machine stands at the ready waiting on the brave few in the audience ready to take a turn with pop classics like Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” There’s a raffle, someone is celebrating a birthday, another couple is visiting The Kennedy Center for the first time. This happy hour is a real piece d’occasion and Saenz de Viteri works it with finesse.

Unexpectedly, after the buildup and the snacks, Barnes and Bass slip in, decked out in well-fitting menswear – crisp white shirts, sharp suits black (for Barnes) and gray (for Bass), their hair slicked back. They’re mobsters maybe or madmen. Their shoulders squared, jaw lines taut, when they walk there’s a touch of masculine swagger, their hands pushed deep into their pants pockets, a look of bored indifference darkening their faces. They proceed to parse through a playlist of 20th century pop hits, from John Mellancamp’s “Hurts So Good” to Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” to Judy Garland singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” and to Nat King Cole smoothly covering “Smile” (when your heart is breaking).

As the music elicits nods of recognition in the audience, Barnes and Bass attack the songs with a variety of jazz and tap and show business-y moves layered atop emotional moments read clearly on their faces. There are homages to the tap dancing greats the Nicholas Brothers, and to the smooth and easy going Gene Kelly, and suave sophisticate Fred Astaire, each subtly drawn in the quick steps and lanky runs, the syncopated step-ball-changes and the vaudeville like kicks performed with exaggerated smiles. There’s military precision and honor in the way these two attack their phrases, they look simple but are complex rhythmically and technically — quick little steps packed together all in a row. They’re dancing at the top — nay, over the top — of their game.

But what’s most riveting are the small vignettes — the emotional moments — where these women, dressed and behaving as men, interact, try to pick up women from the audience, cheer each other on, muddle through tense moments, hug and make up. Bass has a habit of pulling a silver flask from her pocket and taking a swig. Barnes is the more sensitive one, the underdog, who pulls out a deck of cards and tries and fails at card tricks. No matter, they serenade each other, applaud one another on, gin up approval from the audience then take elaborate bows, accepting bouquets of flowers, like Olympians or Russian ballerinas.

1Moncia Bill Barnes_Happy Hour_Courtesy of the Kennedy Center (4)It all looks ridiculously simple, but every moment, every movement, each twitch of an eyebrow or tug at a shirt, is planned and telescopes meaningful messages about friendship, gender, heartbreak, and perseverance, not only in the face of failure, but also, even more important, in the face of ordinariness. Happy Hour is about elevating the ordinary to high art. Buying supplies at the local drug store for a performance at The Kennedy Center, taking old steps and making them fresh and new, culling from pop classics but finding new statements or highlighting their meanings in new ways — this begins to get at the depth of Happy Hour.

So Happy Hour breaks all the rules of theater, including that fourth wall into the audience, and it offers not merely terrific entertainment, but more than a measure of poignancy, a sense of loss even amid the fun-and-games.

Unexpected life lessons told in subtle and magnified gestures reveal striving, doing one’s best, understanding the desires of the opposite sex and more. As much as this daring and dynamic duo want to be heroes, become the life of the party, their eyes and their physical hesitations show us that painful poignancy of not living up to ideals or dreams, either one’s own or those imposed by others.

But MC Saenz de Viteri finally brings us down to earth and back to reality when he returns with a huge birthday sheet cake, inscribed to the audience member with the birthday. It’s a surprise, a deux ex machina if you will, and, finally, a sweet moment after the heavy duty food for thought that Barnes and Bass served up.

(c)  Lisa Traiger 2016
Published March 12, 2016

Photos: Monica Bill Barnes & Company, courtesy Kennedy Center

This article originally appeared in DCMetro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.

 

 

 

 

Bad

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance, Jazz dance by lisatraiger on February 4, 2012

Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance
“Rock the Ballet”
Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center
Montgomery College
Rockville, MD
February 3, 2012

By Lisa Traiger

© 2012 Lisa Traiger

Rasta Thomas, courtesy Parilla Theater, Montgomery College

“Warning! You may experience involuntary spontaneous participation. Welcome to ‘Rock the Ballet’!!”an announcer blares at the expectant crowd in the sold-out performing arts center tucked away in suburban Washington, D.C. They cheer, whoop, a few even chuckle. Music blasts and rock-concert-like smoke and lights set the bar for an evening at the theater that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your grandmother’s ballet. In fact, notwithstanding top-billed company founder Rasta Thomas’s ballet-star status – he was the first American member of the then-Kirov Ballet – there’s not much ballet in the 80-minute, two-act production. There is plenty of dance, most of it performed barefooted by men clad in t-shirts and Levis who throw themselves into overdrive while a playlist of rock and pop classics from the likes of the Black Eyed Peas to U2, Coldplay, Prince, Dave Matthews Band, Queen and the king, MJ (the inimitable Michael Jackson) keeps the incessant beat.

Conceived for the attention-deficit and YouTube generation, “Rock the Ballet” resembles a few collected episodes of the Fox television hit “So You Think You Can Dance?” without the bitchy or overly flowery judges’ comments and the endless commercials. The evening, conceived by Thomas and his associate artistic director and resident choreographer, Adrienne Canterna-Thomas – who also happens to be his wife – features explosive dancing and astonishing tricks that elicit whoops and hollers from the audience and even the dancers.

But …

And, there is a definite, but …. Sure, these young men dance their hearts out. Credit should be given to Robbie Nicholson, James Boyd, Chase Madigan, Ryan Carlson, Lee Gumbs and Tim Olsen – all exquisitely trained in a specific brand of competition-style dance that combines a passel of ballet tricks with jazz, lyrical, hip hop and music-video-style dance. Thomas, too, still has it. At 30, his technique remains as crystalline as ever: perfect split jumps, so many pirouettes he surely drills a hole in the stage floor, and soaring revoltades – 540 degree turns that leave one’s mouth agape. He’s also the company heartthrob. Marked by a white-hot spotlight, his entrances and dramatic pauses or poses elicit screams from gaggles of young girls. And why not? Tall, dark and handsome, he’s got Ryan Gosling abs, a three-day growth of beard, and like the five other “ballet bad boys,” he’s really not too bad to take home to mama. With their polished technique, Gap-style t-shirts and body-beautiful builds, none of these boys spent much time hanging out on dark street corners doing untoward things real bad guys do, like dealing in drugs, women or stolen property. No one dances like that without putting in hours and hours each day at the studio and in Pilates and gyrotonic classes. Audiences are willing to suspend belief and buy into that “good boy/bad boy” premise as long as plenty of physical and hyper kinetic tricks ensue.

What disappoints most about Thomas’s premise, though, is that this one-time ballet wunderkind purports to sell a vision of ballet – his own warped vision? – for the 21st century. Yet, in an evening filled with hip bumps, chest thumps, pelvis thrusts, crotch grabs, knee-to-nose kicks, and more chases than a “Bourne Identity” flick, ballet comes in last place, behind the jazz, hip hop, bump-and-grind and three-minute competition pieces Canterna-Thomas strings together in an incessant blur so none stand out. They couldn’t have included a classical pas de deux or even Vlad Angelov’s show piece “The Bumblebee” to expand the tastes of newcomers? Sure the “boys” dance with flair but, aside from Thomas, they’re two-note wonders, either smiling or pouting with little in the way of emotional depth. But then again, how emotional can one get with the Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You” or U2’s “Beautiful Day”? Canterna-Thomas throws in a Jacques Brel number – “Ne Me Quitte Pas” – but the group choreography offers dubious connection to Brel’s heartfelt heartbreak.

Canterna-Thomas carries most, but not all, of the blame for the vacuous choreography that feels like a night on the sofa watching 1980s and 1990s MTV videos. She has put little thought into an evening at the theater, eschewing development, climax and denouement for applause moments, cheap laughs and the de rigueur curtain-call encore. Thomas contributed a single number, the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen” (sung by Maria Callas, no less), most unfortunately danced by the men with blow-up plastic dolls in a campy, pseudo-sexy way that fizzles, much like one of the dolls when the air leaked out. Canterna-Thomas boldly puts herself center stage, swathed in sequins and miniskirts, in a few numbers as the mincing, slutty girl amid this gang of so-called bad boys. Her bleached blonde hair flowing, her hips grinding and eyelashes aflutter, she looks like a competition kid a bad dance mother spawned, all grown up, tricked out, and escaped from that awful reality show “Dance Moms.”

It would be easy to call it tasteless, but I don’t believe taste – or artistry, for that matter – had anything to do with what Thomas and Canterna-Thomas are aiming for. Kudos to the bad boys, who dance themselves into exhaustion. They sure sell tickets. And that’s what Thomas really wants. But, alas, it isn’t ballet, it isn’t art, and, it really is … bad.

© 2012 Lisa Traiger
Published February 4, 2012