D.C. DanceWatcher

2019 Danced: A Year of Watching

meredith monk cellular sounds

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

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

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

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

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

Orange Grove dance photo @evangelinaa_g

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

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

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

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

UBW_Hair & Other Stories_(c) Hayim Heron_Tendayi lower res

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.