D.C. DanceWatcher

Percussive Family Reunion

Posted in Dance, Tap dance by lisatraiger on October 10, 2017

Lotus, featuring Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Omar Edwards, Derick Grant, Jason Samuels Smith, Joseph Webb, Baakari Wilder and the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet
The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.
October 7, 2017

By Lisa Traiger

Tap dancers are family. As family they gather together, catch up, trade stories, reminisce, honor their forbears and simply, yet profoundly, enjoy each others’ company. Saturday evening’s sold-out Lotus reunited a half-dozen dancers who initially connected in the rehearsal studios and on stage in the 1995 Broadway groundbreaker Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. The musical, conceived by director George C. Wolfe with choreography by Savion Glover, pushed the percussive dance form into the limelight, showcasing its deep and sometimes dark roots in the ignominious slave history that continues to haunt our nation. The young, then-unknown dancers at the time, were just discovering that tap could speak deeply of America’s racial bias and slave history.

Lotus tap Ken Cen

From left: Jason Samuels Smith, Joseph Webb, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick Grant and Omar Edwards front the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet. Not shown: Baakari Wilder. Photo: Chris Stark, Stark Photo Productions

 

Today those dancers are at the heights of their careers. Lotus brought them together for one night, but the reunion wasn’t as much about looking back over the decades, but of forging ahead.

Joseph Webb, a Maryland native who most recently directed the American Embassy of Dance studio in Northwest Washington, D.C., brought his peers together as both a celebration and a meditation on the vitality and cultural import of tap. In the just-re-opened Terrace Theater – now wrapped in warm undulating wood – these six dancers hoofed their hearts out, drawing on the glorious tap dance history of their forbears – teachers, mentors, friends and family who supported their dreams and got them to this point in time.

Yet there was nothing reverential for too long. In the darkness, the call and response of the Hoofer’s Line, “Ho yeah, ho yeah ho,” got the 75-minute program off to a rousing start, each dancer entering in a rumbling tattoo of rhythms to the accompaniment of the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet. The roar of paddle-and-rolls was a thrilling backdrop as each dancer showed their stuff – a taste of what was to come. This opening gambit reached its denouement as the six wound themselves into a close circle before whipping out a turn that went to blackout.

Tap, like many improvisatory dance forms, has a strong competitive streak and old school hoofers often issued a “challenge” to other dancers in the line or circle to try to best them. Here, these six took on the challenge with a sense of camaraderie, egging one another on with friendly encouragement. The result: terrifically complex rhythmic conversations, syncopated dialogues that speak of past, present and future all at once.

The six performers brought together for Lotus teemed with energy, their footwork a succession of fiery pyrotechnics and calmer meanderings exploring the rhythmic universe. Each exhibited distinctive traits and I’m willing to bet that with a bit more time, one could as readily identify them by their beats in the dark as on the warmly lit stage.

There was Omar Edwards, the showman of the group, radiant in his stark white suit. And Derick Grant with a knit watch cap atop his head, the workhorse of the sextet, in t-shirt and jeans. Joseph Webb, his man bun bobbling atop his head, a city-slicker scarf around his neck, exuded cool, calmness in his dark shades. An attractive combination of uptown and downtown, Jason Samuels Smith is the swell of the group, sharply attired in a three-piece blue business suit and shiny gold tap shoes, he can hit hard, and slum it, but also, demonstrate a lightness. The intellect of the gang is lanky, understated Baakari Wilder, another local, who co-directs the youth company Capitol Tap and teaches at Knock on Wood studio. In his trademark purple tap shoes he’s the deep listener, and when he puts foot to wood, it’s with a studied approach, his head cocked slightly to the left, his shoulders hunched, his brow furrowed. Finally, but most certainly not least, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards shows the feminine side of what can sometimes become a boys’ club of heavy hitting tap. But she’s no shrinking violet. In fact, she’s easily as fierce as the men, her waist-length braids whipping behind her, her upper body grace belying the power pumping from her feet. Occasionally in heels, Sumbry-Edwards recalls the popular adage: “Sure Fred Astaire was great, Ginger Rogers did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels.”

The evening incorporated voiceovers from some of the performers, talking about why tap was so vital to them and who they wished to credit as mentors and inspiration. These monologues were often quite moving – the only problem was at times it was hard to discern all that was said over the band and the taps.

Edwards’s recorded monologue spoke about his not always easy journey, but, he said, “it wasn’t as bas as it could have been … every day I love to hear the sound of metal hitting wood … and I still dream about tap dancing.” He also removed his white patent leather tap boots and, barefoot, paid tribute to his Liberian-born mother, who only received her first pair of shoes at 14. Shortly after, he grabbed a microphone and urged the audience into a clapping call-and-response, allowing those sitting in the dark a moment to trade rhythms with a few of this generation’s best tap dancers. Wilder, the most reserved of the six, spoke on tape about his support system — his mother, his family and his faith — and how he has slowly but steadily grown into his gift. Webb stated that for him tap is “a healing art form.” He acknowledged the gratitude he held for his master teachers, including Lon Chaney (the tap dancer), Gregory Hines, Diane Walker and others. Then his solo paid tribute in steps – the smooth Chaney-isms, the flashier speed of Hines, the lilt of Walker, the playfulness of Buster Brown. Webb spoke, too, about his admiration for the work of Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman, who not only sought her own freedom, but helped many others escape the hardship of American slavery. Webb and his tap brothers and sister dance in the footsteps of those who came before.

The band drew selections from jazz and blues classics – Thelonius Monk, Cole Porter, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and the Gershwin brothers. More contemporary voices included Wilder’s solo danced to a piece by popular composer and multi-instrumentalist D’Angelo and Sumbry-Edwards’s solo “Just Swinging,” by the dancer and Alison Miller.

Also beautiful about tap is that it is as much a musical form as a dance form. As the band played Branford Marsalis’s “Mo Betta Blues” longtime friends – they call themselves brothers – Webb and Wilder syncopated the piece with their quicksilvery taps. Samuels Smith sliced up rhythms like a birthday cake performing to Miles Davis’s “Joshua” and Lee Morgan’s “Ceora.” Webb followed trombonist Reginald Cyntje and trumpet player Joseph Jamaal Teachey on a sharply cut swath of light reminiscent of a New Orleans Second Line. And the rousing, and too short, closing number that brought the gang of tap friends together featured Lester Young’s “Lester Leaps In.”

Lotus tap Ken Cen (2)

From left: Jason Samuels Smith, Joseph Webb and Omar Edwards with the Lafayette Harris Jr. Quintet, Photo Chris Stark of Stark Photo Productions

Each of these dancers had plenty to say about the form, their mentors and what tap means to them. They also let their feet and bodies do the talking. Edwards with high kicks, and Nicholas Brothers stunners like a flip into a jazz split. Grant followed a hard hitting section with some butterfly-like ripples on the floor. Samuels Smith brought a high-powered ease to his riffs and more than a little dazzle with some tricky balances, slides and rolls. Webb offered lighter flashy footwork along with his million dollar smile. Sumbry-Edwards could play the flirt, especially at the end in her sequined little red dress, but she did a stunning riff on time steps that could put a mathematician to shame with its numeric complexities. Wilder, the lightest of the dancers, sometimes recalled old time soft shoe in his easygoing lilt.

This format, which also featured projections of unnamed portraits – sketched, painted and photographed – of African Americans from the past, seems to have been drawn from last fall’s DC Metro Tap Roots program at Dance Place. This time with more dancers, it’s more fleshed out, but there’s still more to do, more stories and experiences to be shared. As the six dancers and the musical quartet stitched out their rhythmic patterns in shifting solos, pairings and groupings, the moment became one of tribute to the multitude of unnamed, and perhaps nameless, ancestors whose lives and struggles made this moment of celebration and homage possible.

Throughout the evening, tap aficionados nodded in recognition of steps, patterns, rhythms and riffs that drew upon the work of beloved tap masters, including the likes of Buster Brown, Lon Chaney, Gregory Hines, Diane Walker, Sandman Sims, Jimmy Slyde, the Condos Brothers, the Nicholas Brothers and Jeni Le Gon, leaving out many more than I could name.

Webb called this evening Lotus to evoke the flower that, he wrote in the program “grows in the mud ….Tap dance, with deep roots and tradition in African dance, has not always been a just and beautiful experience in America.”

But it’s important to note that Lotus was not just an evocation of the past. It was a look to the future. These six dancers are at the peaks of their careers and they dance in acknowledgement of the lineage they carry in their muscles and bones, their sinews and souls, but they are ever moving forward, forging their own paths. It’s America’s story, told through dance, through steps in time, rhythms that speak of ancient tribal calls and modern hip hop stances. That is the story of tap dance – one of our prized indigenous American dance forms – that remains rooted in its past as it fearlessly pushes forward. Let’s hope these dancers and musicians can build this one-off into a touring production that would bring this vibrant generation of tap masters to further attention around the nation and beyond. Their voices and feet need to be heard.

© 2017 by Lisa Traiger. Originally published on DCMetroTheaterArts.com and reprinted here with kind permission.

 

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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

Grit and Resilience

Posted in Tap dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on October 9, 2016

The Blues Project
Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIG Lovely
Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
Washington, D.C.
October 5-6, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

If you want to know how America dances, don’t tune in to those kitschy television competition shows So You Think You Can Dance? and Dancing With the Stars.

Check out Dorrance Dance in The Blues Project. This is how America dances: with fervor and ferocity, humor and intensity, grace and fluidity, intelligence and an eye on where our people have been and where we are going.

dorrancedance_2013christopherduggan-26-960x600The Blues Project digs deeply into our nation’s indigenous dance and music forms — tap and the blues — parsing its taproots in African dances and rhythms brought by slaves to American soil, Irish step dance performed by immigrants, and a culmination of fusing syncopated rhythms, stringed instruments, which evolved from West African kora to banjo, to all-American guitar and bass, and adapting heartfelt storytelling sung in ballads, spirituals and blues. The result is an astonishing and uplifting 65 minutes of grit and gumption told through body, voice, instrument, heart and soul.

On a darkened stage, the first sounds are a beat, pounded out in footwork, the sharp hit of a tap against wood, singularly and then collectively as nine dancers gather in a layered expression of body music. It’s joyful and elemental, for the beat is always reminiscent of the internal life-force: the heart. Even in the large, less-than-intimate space of the Eisenhower Theater, the performers, both dancers and musicians, manage to pull the viewers into their world, one where rhythm takes hold and leads you on a journey.

Dorrance, lanky and lean, clad in a blue-checked shirtwaist dress, comes forward last among her company of eight fine tap dancers (Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Starinah “Star” Dixon, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Byron Tittle, and Nicholas Van Young) . Among them her co-choreographers Derick K. Grant, an original company member of the Broadway cast of the instructive and propulsive tap musical Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who coached Michael Jackson in tap over an 11 year period and lists Broadway credits on her resume.

Also on stage, the exquisite powerhouse singer/songwriter/guitarist Toshi Reagon. Daughter of legendary Washington-based folk, blues and spiritual song leader, singer and composer Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded the a cappella “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” Toshi Reagon mines the aural history of America with her blues-infused rock, funk and ballads, that parses the sonic sounds of America’s roots in music.

From boldly and unabashedly spiritual forms like the Ring Shout, which dates back to slavery, to gut wrenching blues and sultry funk, Reagon carries the inflections and voices of generations expressed in their songs of oppression and hope, of slavery and freedom, that continue to resonate today.

Dorrance grew up in her mother’s ballet school in Chapel Hill, N.C., and on the soccer fields where her father coached — he led the 1991 Women’s U.S. team to the World Cup. Her combination of grace and athleticism mark her tap, but she isn’t an old school hoofer. She dances with a 21st-century sensibility and attack, knowing when to get down and hit the floor and when to lightly scuff it and caress it with staccato trembles. Her ear for the rhythmic journey and its counterpoint is impeccable. It’s hard not to notice her, even tucked into her ensemble. Unlike tap great Savion Glover, she doesn’t hide her face or turn her back on the audience, you see her ferocity of concentration as her forehead scrunches up and her eyes focus hard.

In his solo, co-choreographer Grant slyly at first throws down an old school time step. It becomes the basis for his dance rumination that meanders through a distinctive rhythm tap vocabulary while still feeling entirely of the moment to an untrained ear.

Co-choreographer Sumbry-Edwards takes her solo in a different direction, easing into it and playing off of Reagon’s guitar and bluesy and revelatory singing. Their interplay shows the necessity of having instrumentalists on stage — the four-piece ensemble (Adam Widoff on electric guitar, Fred Cash on electric bass, Juliette Jones on violin, and Allison Miller on drums) plays on a raised platform across the back of the stage. Sumbry-Edwards channels both pain and joy in her cascading hits and scuffs, slaps and shuffles, until she can’t hold back and it becomes a rush that brings her to a hard-won end. It a reckoning with the origins of tap as a way to preserve rhythms of outlawed African drums outlawed, but maintained in the body through dance and percussion called hambone.

Dorrance has incorporated her ensemble into the work in masterful ways, playing two dancers against three, a single dancer against an ensemble, quartets and trios building on layered rhythmic sets that track the evolution of tap, jazz, blues and funk. It’s a wondrous journey taken in loving recollection of America’s past. Dorrance and her eight dancers, along with Reagon and her four musicians, have let loose an evening of unfettered footwork, drawing from the most primal beats that have been kept alive for centuries to tell our true American story.

Our nation’s 19th century poet Walt Whitman wrote a song of his America, mountains, hills, valleys, workers of every stripe who built this nation. Dorrance and Reagon together sing a 21st century song of our nation’s struggles, flaws, triumphs, and hopes.

The Blues Project is exquisite embodied poetry of resilience.

Photo: Dorrance Dance by Christopher Duggan

This review was first published October 7, 2016, in DC Metro Theater Arts and is republished here with kind permission.

© 2016 by Lisa Traiger

A Personal Best: Dance Watching in 2012

Posted in Ballet, Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Tap dance, World dance by lisatraiger on December 30, 2012
Jamie Scott and Dylan Crossman, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Photo: Stephanie Berger Photography

Jamie Scott and Dylan Crossman, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, photo: Stephanie Berger Photography

Like many, my 2012 dance year began with an ending: Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Much was written on the closure of this 20th-century American treasure after more than 50 years, especially its final performance events on the days leading up to New Year’s Eve 2012. At the penultimate performance on December 30, the dancers shone, carving swaths of movement from thin air in the hazy pools of light spilling onto raised platform stages in the cavernous Park Avenue Armory space. A piercing trumpet call emanated from the rafters heralding the start of this one-of-a-kind evening. Pillowy, cloud-like installations floated above in near darkness. Throughout, snippets of Cunningham choreography – I saw “Crises,” “Doubles” and maybe “Points in Space” – came and went, moving images played for the last time, while audience members sat on folding chairs, observed from risers or meandered through the space, taking care not to step on the carpeted runways that the dancers used to travel from stage to stage.

I found it refreshing to get so close to the dancers after years of partaking of the Cunningham company in theatrical spaces, for me most commonly the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Here the dancers became human, sweat beads forming on their backs, breathe elevated, hair matting down toward the end of the evening. Duets, trios, groups formed and dissolved in that coolly unemotive Cunningham fashion, with alacrity they would step off the stage and rest and reset themselves before coming back on again for another round of the complex alphabet of Cunningham bends, pelvic tilts, lunges, passes, springs, jumps and playful leaps. While the dancers energy surged, I felt time was growing short. The end near. I soon found myself on a riser standing directly above and behind music director Takehisa Kosugi who at the keyboard conducted the ensemble and held an digital stop watch. Journalists traditionally end their articles with – 30 –. Here, momentarily I got distracted with the numbers: 41’38”, 41’39”, 41’40”, 41’41” … And then within a minute Kosugi nodded and squeezed his thumb: at 42’40”. An ending stark, poignant, and by the book.

In January, the Mariinsky Ballet’s “Les Saisons Russes” program was an eye opener on many levels. The work of Ballets Russes that stunned Paris then the world from 1909 through 1914 under the astute and market-savvy vision of Serge Diaghilev, remains incomparable for audiences today. The triple bill of Mikel Fokine works wows with its saturated colors and vividly wrought choreographic statements, impeccably executed by Mariinsky’s stable of well-trained dancers. These three ballets – “Chopiniana” from 1908, and  “The Firebird” and “Scheherazade” from 1910 – continue to pack a powerful punch, a century after their creation. The subtle Romanticism distilled with elan by the Mariinsky corps de ballet — from the perfection etched into their curved arms and slightly tilted heads, their epaulment unparalleled — makes one pine for a bygone Romantic era that likely never actually attained this level of technical grace and precision. With “Firebird,” the Russian folktale elaborately retold in dance, drama and vibrantly outlandish costumes, the flamboyant folk characters were part ‘80s rock stars, part science fiction film creatures. Finally, the bombast and melodrama of the Arabian Nights rendered through Fokine’s version of “Schererazade” danced as if on steroids provided outsized exoticism, with more sequined costumes, scimtars and false facial hair and the soap operatic performances to suit the pompous grandeur of the Rimsky-Korsakov score. Surely Diaghilev would have approved.

Mark Morris Dance Group in "L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato"

Mark Morris Dance Group in “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato”

Also in January, Mark Morris Dance Group returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House with its brilliant L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, danced with humanity and glee to Handel’s oratorio, itself based on 17th-century pastoral poem by John Milton and the watercolor illustrations of William Blake. Morris – and Milton, Blake and Handel – each strove for a utopian ideal. This work draws together its disparate parts into one of the great dance works of the 20th century. Enough has been spoken and written about this glorious rendering in music, with the full-voiced Washington Bach Consort Chorus, wildly overblown and softly understated dancing from an expanded company of 24 elegant and spirited movers, and set design – vivid washes of color and light in ranging from flourish of springtime hues to fading fall colors — by Adrianne Lobel. L’Allegro was produced abroad, in 1988 when Morris and his company were in residence at the Theatre Royale de la Monnaie in Belgium, at a time and a place when dance received unprecedented financial and artistic support. I was struck by the open democratic feeling of the dancers, each on equal footing, soloists melding into groups, humorous bits shifting to serious interludes, no dancer stands out individually. For Morris, whose roots date back to folk dance, the community, the group, the natural feeling of people dancing together is valued above the singularity of solo dancing. It’s democracy – small d – at its best. Watching the work again this year, as dance companies large and small balance at the edge of a seemingly perpetual fiscal cliff, was a reminder of how small and cloistered American modern dance has become. We have few choreographers with the resources and the daring to attempt the bold and brash statements that Morris harnessed in L’Allegro.

Iyar Elezra and Rachael Osborne of Batsheva Dance Company in "Hora," photo: Gadi Dagon

Iyar Elezra and Rachael Osborne of Batsheva Dance Company in “Hora,” photo: Gadi Dagon

Another company that leaves everything on stage but in an entirely different vein is Tel Aviv’s Batsheva Dance Company, which I caught at Brooklyn Academy of Music in March. Hora, an evening-length study in gamesmanship and internalized worlds made visible was created by company artistic director (and current world-renowned dance icon) Ohad Naharin. With his facetiously named Gaga movement language, dancers attained heightened sensitivity, not dissimilar to the work butoh masters and post-modernist strove for in earlier decades. And yet the steely technical accomplishment and steadfast allegiances to dancing in the moment that Gaga pulls from its best proponents makes Batsheva among the world’s most prized and praised contemporary dance companies. At BAM, the 60 minute work with its saturated colors and pools of shifting lighting by Avi Yona Bueno and music arranged by Isao Tomita featuring snippets from Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and Mussorgsky offers a smorgasbord of familiarity as the dancers parse oddly shaped lunges with hips askew, pelvises tucked under, ribs thrust forward and heads cocked just so. Odd and awkward, yet athletic and graceful, and undeniably daring Naharin mines his Batsheva dancers for quirks that become accepted as fresh 21st century bodily configurations. Though named Hora, the work has nothing whatsoever to do with the ubiquitous Jewish circle dance, yet after an evening with Batsheva, it’s hard not to feel like celebrating.

Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in "Necessary Weather," with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, photo: Stephanie Berger

Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz in “Necessary Weather,” with lighting by Jennifer Tipton, photo: Stephanie Berger

In April, Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz glimmered in “Necessary Weather,” a subtle tour de force filled with small moments of great and profound drama and even, unexpectedly, a smile or two. The glide of a foot, cock of a head, even a raised eyebrow or tip of a hat from Rudner and Reitz resonated beneath the glow of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, which in American Dance Institute’s Rockville studio theater, performed a choreography of its own glowing, fading, saturating and shimmering.

Also at ADI in May, Tzveta Kassabova created a rarified world – of the daily-ness of life and the outdoors. By bringing nature inside and onto the stage, which was strewn with leaves, decorated with lawn furniture, and, in a coup de theatre, a mud puddle and a rain storm. Her evening-length and richly rendered Left of Green, Fall, choreographed on a wide-ranging cast of 16 child and adult dancers and movers, featured sound design and original music with a folk-ish tinge by Steve Wanna. The work tugs at the outer corners of thought with its intermingling of hyper-real and imagined worlds. The senses also come into play: the smell of drying leaves, the crackly crunch they make beneath one’s feet and the moist-wet smell of fall is startling, particularly occurring indoors on a sunny May afternoon. Kassabova, with her flounce of bouncy curls and angular, sharp-cornered body, dances with a laser-like intensity. She’s ready to play, allowing the sounds and sights of children in a park, sometimes among themselves, other times with adults. She’s also game to show off awkwardness: turned in feet, sharp corners of elbows, hunched shoulders and flat-footed balances – providing refreshing lessons that beauty is indeed present in the most ordinary and the most natural ways the body moves.

The Paris Opera Ballet in "Giselle," photo: Sebastien Mathe

The Paris Opera Ballet in “Giselle,” photo: Sebastien Mathe

The Paris Opera Ballet’s July stop at the Kennedy Center Opera House brought an impeccable rendering of one of the pinnacles of Romantic ballet: Giselle. And should one expect anything less than perfection when the program credits list the number of performances of this ballet by the company? On July 5, 2012, I saw the “760th performance by the Paris Opera Ballet and the 206th performance of this production,” one with choreography by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot dating from 1841, transmitted by Marius Petipa in 1887 and adapted by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991. Two days later it was 763. The POB still uses the 1924 set and costume designs of the great Alexandre Benois, adding further authenticity to the work. But nothing about this production is museum material. POB continues to breathe life into its Giselle.

Aside from making a pilgrimage to the imaginary graveside of the tragic maiden dancer two-timed by her admirer, it’s hard to find a more accurate and handsome production of this ballet masterpiece. Aurelie Dupont was a thoughtful and sophisticated Giselle, care and technical virtuosity evident in her performance, while her Albrecht, Mathieu Ganio, played his Romantic hero for grandeur. While the 40-something husband and wife duo of Nicholas Le Riche and Clairemarie Osta on paper make an unlikely Albrecht and Giselle, in reality their heartfelt performances were so intensely and genuinely realized at the Saturday matinee that they felt as youthful as Giselles and Albrechts a generation younger.

The production is as close to perfection on so many levels that one might ever find in a ballet, starting with a corps de ballet that danced singularly, breathing as one unit, most particularly in the act II graveside scene. The mime passages, too, were truly beautiful, works of expressive artistry many that in most companies, particularly the American ones, are dropped or given short shrift. Here the tradition remains that mime is integral to the choreography, not an afterthought but a moment of import. Most interesting was a (new to me) mime sequence by Giselle’s mother about the origins of her daughter’s affliction and how she will most definitely die (hands in fists, crossed at the wrists, held low at the chest). Later when the Wilis dance in act II, it becomes abundantly clear why their arms are crossed, though delicately, their hands relaxed: they’re the walking dead, zombies, if you will, of another era. Another unforgettable moment in POBs “Giselle,” is its use of tableaux at then ending moment of each act. Each act ends in a moment of frozen stillness – act one of course with Giselle’s death, act two with the resurrection of Albrecht. Each of these is captured in a stage picture, then the curtain dropped and rose again – and there the dancers stood, still posed in character. Stunning and memorable.

Each year in August the Karmiel Dance Festival swallows up the small northern Israeli city of Karmiel as upwards of reportedly 250,000 folk and professional dancers swarm the city for three days and nights of dance. From large-scale performances in an outdoor amphitheater to professional and semi-professional and student companies performing in the municipal auditorium and in local gymnasiums and schools to folk dance sessions on the city’s six tennis courts, Karmiel is awash in dance. I caught companies ranging from the silky beauty of Guangdong Modern Dance Company from China’s Guangzhou province, France’s Ballet de Opera Metz under the direction of Patrick Salliot, the youthful and vivacious CIA Brasileira De Ballet, whereartistic director Jorge Texeira seeks out his youthful dance protégés from the streets and barrios of some of the poorest neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, Terrence Orr’s Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and Israel’s Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company, directed by Rami Be’er in a program of new works by young dancemakers. Maybe not the best that I saw, but the unforgettable oddity of the three-day festival was the headlining company, billed as the Cossack National Dance Troupe from Russia. In the grand folk dance tradition of the great Moiseyev company of Russia, these dancers, musicians and singers – numbering 60 strong – let the sparks fly, literally. With breathtaking sword play where white hot sparks truly did fly from the swords, to astounding acrobatic feats and graceful, feminine dances featuring smoothness, precision and delicate footwork parsed out in heeled character boots, the troupe was a hit. Few in the appreciative Israeli crowd – many of whom sang along to the old Russian folk songs buying into a mythic pastoral vision of the Cossack warriors – seemed aware of the irony of an audience of predominantly Israeli Jews heartily applauding a show titled “The Cossacks Are Coming!” The last time Jews were heard to say “The Cossacks are coming,” things didn’t turn out so well.

Nan Jombang in "Rantau Berisik," photo: Fiona Cullen.

Nan Jombang in “Rantau Berisik,” photo: Fiona Cullen.

In September, Dance Place was fortunate to book one of the State Department’s CenterStage touring troupes at the top of its season. Nan Jombang, a one-of-a-kind family of dancers from the Indonesian island of Sumatra, provided a remarkable and moving evening in its North American premiere. Rantau Berbisik or “Whisperings of Exile” begins with a siren call, a female shriek that’s an alarm and cry of pain, that begins a journey of unexpected images. Ery Mefri, a dancer from Padang, on the western coast of Sumatra, has created a surprisingly original dance culture drawing from traditional tribal rituals, martial arts – randai and pencak silak – captivating chants and unusual body percussion techniques. But most unique about Mefri’s artistic project, and the company he founded in 1983, is that it is truly a family affair: the five dancers are his wife and children. The live, sleep, eat and work together daily in intense isolation crafting dances of elemental power and uncommon dynamism through an intensely intimate process.

The work features a trio of gloriously powerful women who exhibit strength of body and will in the earthbound manner they dive into movement, oozing into deep plie like squats and then pounding the taut canvas of their stretched red pants like drummers. Moments later they spring forth from deep lunges, pouncing then retreating, only to strike out again. The hour-long work is filled with mystery and mundanity: dancers carry plates and cups back and forth from a tea cart, rattling the china in percussive polyrhythms, and one woman sits in a chair and keens, rocking and hugging herself for an inconsolable loss. Later the women pass and stack plates around a wooden table with an urgency and assembly-line precision that brings new meaning to the term woman’s work. The one thin boy/man in the group attacks and retreats with preternatural grace, sometimes part of this female-dominated social structure, other times apart – an outcast or loner. And throughout amid the bustle, the urgent calls, the unmitigated pain and sense of loss, there remains a stunning impression of yearning, of hope. The ancient rituals of home and hearth, of work and rest, of group and individual it seems are drawn from a language and way of life that Mefri sees disappearing. Quickly evident in this riveting evening is how Mefri and his family can communicate so deeply to the heart and soul in ways that strike at the core, of unspoken truths about family, community and cultural continuity and conveyance.

Step Afrika!

Step Afrika!

One final note of continuity and cultural conveyance was struck resoundingly in December with Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s “Juba: Masters of Tap and Percussive Dance” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. While the program was long on youth and short on masters – an indication that we’ve reached the end our last generation of true tap masters — Dianne “Lady Di” Walker represented the early tap revival providing the link to old time rhythm tap of the early and mid-20th century. The program, emceed and curated by Lane Alexander of CHRP, brought together  a bevy of youthful dance companies, among them Michelle Dorrance’s Dorrance Dance with an interesting excerpt for two barefoot modern dancers and a tapper. D.C. favorite Step Afrika! brought down the first act curtain with its heart-raising rhythms and body slapping percussion. And, closing out the evening, Walker served up “Softly As the Morning Sunrise,” a number as smooth and bubbly as glass of Cristal, her footwork as fast as hummingbird wings, her physics-defying feet emitting more sounds than the eye could see. This full evening of tap also included Derik Grant, Sam Weber, and younger pros Jason Janas, Chris Broughton, Connor Kelley, Jumaane Taylor, Joseph Monroe Webb and Kyle Wildner. The evening with its teen and college aged dancers sounded a note that tap will continue to be a force to reckon with in the 21st century. That it occurred on a main stage at the Kennedy Center was – still – a rarity. Let’s hope the success of this evening will lead to more forays into vernacular and percussive dance forms at the nation’s performing arts center. The clusters of tap fans young and old gathered in the lobby after the show couldn’t bear to leave. If they had thrown down a wooden tap floor on the red carpeting, no doubt folks would have stayed for another hour of tap challenges right there in the lobby.

 ***

And I can’t forget a final, very personal experience. During the annual Kennedy Center run of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in February, I found myself pulled from my aisle seat to join the dancers onstage in Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” which the company had just added to its repertory in late 2011. Clad in slim fitting business suits and stark white shirts, the dancers make their way to the lip of the stage and stare. The next thing you know, they’re stalking the aisles, climbing over seats, crawling across laps to bring up randomly selected members of the audience. The sequence is fascinating – a mix of the mundane, the ridiculous and the dancerly – inviting in the human element as these god-like dancers canoodle, slow dance, cha-cha and indulge their new-found partners. Soon they corral the group, circle, and in ones and twos the dancers begin to lead the participants off stage, leaving just one – most frequently a woman – standing in the embrace of her partner as the others hug themselves in a smug slow dance. On cue the dancers fall. The woman remains alone, in the spotlight. Frequently aghast, embarrassed, she slinks away.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin's "Minus 16," photo: Paul Kolnik

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16,” photo: Paul Kolnik

Dreamlike is the best way I can describe the experience. Audience members seem to be selected according to a particular color, most frequently red judging from the previous times I’ve seen the work. As a “winter” on the color chart, I, of course, frequently wear red from my beret to my purse to a closet full of sweaters and blouses. When the dancers lined up, I felt one made eye contact with me right away. I didn’t avert my gaze and I thought that I could be chosen. But as they came into the audience, he passed me by and I exhaled slightly, relieved not to be selected. The stage re-filled with dancers and their unwitting partners as I watched. Suddenly, the same dancer who caught my eye was at my side beckoning, pulling me from my seat. My hand in his I followed him down the dark aisle and up the stairs. There the music changed frequently from kitschy ‘60s pop to rumba, cha cha, and tango – all recognizably familiar, a Naharin trait. Yet the choreographer definitely wants to keep the novices off guard, which is disconcerting because there are moments when the dancers are completely with you and you feel comfortably in their care, then they leave you to your own devices and all bets are off.

I realized quickly that I had to focus fully on my partner and not get distracted by what others on stage or in the audience were doing. We maintained eye contact throughout and went through a bevy of pop-ish dances: I recall bouncing, lunging, throwing in a bump or two and a great tango – wow, what a lead. Then they mixed things up, pushing all the civilians into a circle then a clump before reshuffling things. Somehow I came out with a new partner and things really heated up as I followed him and he me. I felt my old contact skills tingling back to life as I tried to give as good as he gave. He dipped me and I suspect that when he felt I gave in to it, he realized he could take me further. I don’t know how, but I found myself lifted above his head in what felt like a press. As he turned, I thought I might as well take advantage of this. I’m never going to be in the arms of an Ailey dancer again. I put one leg in passe, straightened the other, threw my head back and lifted my sternum, while keeping one hand on my head so my beret wouldn’t fly. He likely only made two or three rotations, but in my mind it felt like a carnival carousel: incredible. Back on earth with my feet on solid footing, he tangoed and embraced me. I knew what was coming. The slow dance when they lead partners off stage. I realized I might was well give in to the moment, I melted into his embrace and we swayed. Two bodies as one. Eyes closed. I momentarily opened them when I sensed the stage emptying. The only words spoken between us are when I said, “uh oh.” He squeezed me and then dropped to the floor in an X with the remaining Ailey dancers. There I was. Alone. Center stage in the Kennedy Center Opera House. I have been seeing performances there since I was a child in 1970s. I had seconds to decide what I was going to do. “%^&#) it,” I said to myself. “I’m standing here in the Opera House with 2,500 people looking at me. I’m going to take my bow.” I moved my leg into B+, opened my arms with a flourish, dropped my head and shoulders and rose, relishing the moment for all it was worth. Seconds later, the audience roared. I was stunned. I made my way gingerly off stage, still blinded by the spotlights as I fumbled up the aisle to find my seat.

Dreamlike. Throughout I knew this was something I would want to relish and remember and tried to find markers for while maintaining the presence of the moment. I was able to find out who the dancers were (yes, there were two) who partnered me. But I believe that Naharin wants the mystery to remain both for the onlookers and the participants. At intermission people were asking if I was a “plant,” insisting that I must have known what to do in advance. But, no, Naharin wants that indeterminacy, that edginess, that moment of frisson, when the audience realizes that with folks just like them on stage, all bets are off on what could happen. While we often attend dance performances to see heightened, better, more beautiful and more physically fit and skilled versions of ourselves (one of the reasons, I think, that we also watch football, basketball and the like), there’s something about seeing someone just like you or me up on stage. If the middle aged mom who needs to get the kids off to school then go to work the next morning can have such a rarified experience then maybe, just maybe, the rest of us can rediscover something fresh, untried, daring, out of sorts, amid the banality of our everyday lives. In this brief segment – and I couldn’t tell you how long it lasted, but I’m sure not more than five minutes at most – Naharin, through the heightened skill and beauty of professional dancers, offers escape from the ordinary. Audiences live through it vicariously by seeing one of their own up there on stage. For me the experience was unforgetable.

© 2012 Lisa Traiger

Published December 30, 2012

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