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

The Wisdom of Hair

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Dance theater, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 28, 2019

Hair & Other Stories
Urban Bush Women
Dance Place
Choreography: Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis
and the UBW company
Washington, D.C.

February 16-17, 2019

By Lisa Traiger

UBW_Hair & Other Stories_(c) Hayim Heron_Tendayi lower res

Don’t think you’re going to sit back and observe if you show up at Urban Bush Women’s latest, Hair & Other Stories, which made its Washington, D.C., premiere this past weekend at Dance Place. Oh no. Read the program notes and then hear the urgency in the company dancers’ voices, when they say: “Don’t get too comfortable …. We’re goin’ on a journey.”

Hair — African-American women’s hair in particular, with all its baggage as “good” or “bad” — serves as the core narrative construct, but Hair & Other Stories is about much, much more. And I’ll preface this review with my own hesitation as a possessor of so-called “good” hair, typically long (though I recently got a cut) and straight, should I be writing this review? Does my hair texture and skin color — my white privilege — preclude me from sharing my point of view, my understanding? (Let me know in the comments if you have thoughts.)

The two-and-a-half-hour evening plays as part church revival, part dance party, part therapeutic reckoning, part history lesson (including a letter to Madame C. J. Walker, the first African American female millionaire who plied her trade in hair relaxers). And it is wholly and fully engaging of mind, body and spirit for those willing to hop on the train to a future that co-choreographers Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis and the company envision, one where the racist roots of the United States are reckoned with so healing can begin.

Crafted from personal narratives culled from the performers and from participants in Hair Party workshops the company held around the country asking black and other women to talk about their hair and more at community centers, churches, kitchen tables, the work throws out a challenge to all those willing to take it:

Re-think what you thought you knew about race, beauty, class, and privilege. But it comes with a caveat: “You don’t have to leave the same way you came in.” Think of Hair & Other Stories as a permanent haircut or dye job for your intellect and soul.

The Brooklyn-based company, which now includes men — two in this performance — was founded in 1984 by visionary storyteller and social activist Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. UBW draws on the bedrocks of contemporary and African dance, song and spoken word weaving together personal and universal narratives that wrestle with the history and challenges of being black and living in America. Throughout the two-part evening, performers address the audience, drawing from the powerful Undoing Racism workshops that the New Orleans-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond conducts around the country. UBW and the institute have long been collaborative partners in educational settings, but never has the fundamental and life-changing material of the workshops been so specifically incorporated into a UBW performance.

The evening begins as an all-out revival meeting. The sing-song preacherly DuBois A’Keen is joined by Tendayi Kuumba and Courtney J. Cook who take an instructive approach, easing audience members into what it means to go through life in with nappy or “bad” hair. All black women are called on to stand in solidarity for the indignities they have faced on playgrounds and on the job for having unmanageable or “different” hair. White women, too, with so-called “silky” locks, are asked to stand with the exhortation: “Let the winds of change blow in your hair.” Indeed.

Early on, a table filled with pomades, oils, gels, and combs indicates some styling might take place. A careful eye will tease out the intricate wrist and finger actions it takes to braid hair. Recollections of suffering under the hot comb for silky straight styles elicit plenty of nods from parts of the audience. The women especially, in their eclectic 21st-century boho costumes by DeeDee Gomes, appliqued with sequins, patches, fringes, and other piecemeal findings, lend a timeless quality to the proceedings. Stories and histories are drawn through embodied movement culling from the lexicon of Africanist dance — rolling shoulders, undulating spines, bodies pulled earthward, fluttering arms and articulations of torsos, pumping knees, and more recent raised fists. Moments of stillness and everyday work — sweeping, brushing, stirring motions — also braid their way into the choreographic language that draws from deeply planted roots.

At one point when the performers address colorism — the valuing of lighter skin over darker skin in the African-American community and the white community — the dancers vigorously use their hands to brush their limbs and torsos as if trying to wash away their own skin. And then, as they line up and pause, breathless after those frantic seconds, the realization comes: they have arranged themselves by skin tone, from darkest to lightest.

Throughout the swift-moving program, all are called on to move — audience as well as performers. Raise an arm, wiggle in your seat, stand in solidarity or come down to the stage, the dance floor and feel in your body the weight of racism, colorism, white privilege and prejudice as it seeps into in your bones, muscles, roots, and scalp.

Lanky powerhouse Chanon Judson tackles a vignette with a trio of “Elevator Hell Stories.” In one she walks into an elevator filled with African Americans who all want her to take a comb to her unruly hair. When the scene is repeated with white riders, they all “love” her look and reach out to touch her hair. Later, she stands on a pedestal, wraps herself in black paper and dons an oversized white top hat — recalling images of Jim Crow or Master Juba. Rooted to the pedestal Judson writhes, ripping away the paper, shedding skin perhaps, filled with taunts and pain, to reveal a renewed body … and spirit.

Joining the cast, Judson’s very young daughter, maybe three years old, moves with child-like assurance, following along, taking an adult’s hand, stepping out of a baby swaddling like a pro. Early on someone brushes down her edges, the soft baby hair at her hairline, with a toothbrush, later during a wickedly sharp scene featuring black and white Barbies in a conversation about white privilege played for adult sensibilities, she settles into her grandmother’s lap in the audience clutching a Barbie. Her moments on stage are a reminder that more’s at stake than the here and now. Judson’s daughter reinforces the Hair & Other Stories hopeful message: That she will grow up free from prejudices about hair and skin and beauty. (Parenthetically this child’s presence also shows us it’s possible to make creative work and raise a family.) The other excellent performers include Stephanie Mas, Ross Daniel (who represents an enlightened white person on this journey), Love Muwwakkil and Cyrah Ward.

It’s a wish-filled message in an evening that requires work — the hard work of reflection. Co-creators Judson and Speis call it “the urgent dialogue of the 21st century.” At Dance Place, the listening, responses, and contributions to the discussion, the call-and-response, felt active and engaged. The work itself is a conversation, one that occurs on a continuum. And one that for many will continue beyond the final bows.

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.

Photos: Courtesy Dance Place, top Tendayi Kuumba; bottom, UBW company, (c) Hayim Heron
(c) Lisa Traiger 2019