D.C. DanceWatcher

2017: Not Pretty — A Year in Dance

Posted in African dance, Ballet, Dance, Modern dance, Tap dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 31, 2017

The year 2017 was no time for pretty in dance.

The dance that I experienced this year moved me by being meaningful, making a statement, and speaking truth to power. Thus, the choreography that excited or touched or challenged or even changed me was unsettling, thought-provoking, visceral. The influence of #Black Lives Matter, #Resist and #MeToo meant that dance needed to be consequential, now more than ever. Here’s what made me think and feel during a year when I saw less dance than usual.

cafe muller

Not merely the best performance I saw this year, but among the best dance works I’ve experienced in a decade or more was the double revival of Pina Bausch’s “Café Muller” and “Rite of Spring” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Alas, the company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C., so my experience with Bausch’s canonic works are few, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to have experienced these two masterworks. Their significance cannot be understated. In “Café Muller,” the profound gravity of the performers in that closed café, with its scintillatingly scattered chairs, doorways and walls arranged in perfect disarray is humorless, just like the dancers, who arrive with their aura of existential loneliness. The bored banality of these slip-dressed sleepwalking women, the meaningless urgency of the red-head in her clickety clackety heels and green dress, the morose body-bruising couplings, as a slip-thin woman incessantly throws herself onto her male counterpart only to be flung, dropped, and sideswiped with as much care as one might give to a sack of laundry. “Café Muller’s” fragrance, with its snippets from a Purcell score, is heavy with the perfume of existentialism and the Sartrian notion that hell is other people. The work feels like life: a study of losses, regrets, and the unrelenting banality of existence. I’m glad I saw it in middle age — Pina understood it as the decade of disappointment.

A rejoinder to this nondescript yet vivid café of no exits, is the cataclysmic clash of the sexes that imbues Bausch’s version of “The Rite of Spring” with the driving forces of primitivism that jangle the nerves, raise the heart rate, ignite loins, and remind us of our most basic animalistic instincts for creation and destruction. The infamous soil-covered stage, populated with xx men and women elemental gravity in came from the It took a trip to Brooklyn, New York, because, alas, the Pina Bausch Dance Company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C. The double revival of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring shook my world, reminding me what the greatest dance can do to the gut and the soul.

Mon élue noire (My Black Chosen One): Sacre #2A companion of sorts to Bausch, arrived later in the fall at the University of Maryland’s Clarice. Germaine Acogny, often identified as the Martha Graham of African modern dance, brought for just a single evening her taut and discomfiting Mon Elue Noire — “My Black Chosen One” — a singular recapitulation of “Rite of Spring” drawing, of course, from Stravinsky’s seminal score, and also dealing unapologetically with colonialism. The choreography by French dancemaker Olivier Dubois places 73-year-old Acogny, first clad in a black midriff baring bra top, into a coffin like vertical box, her head hooded by a scarf. A flame, then the sweet, musky perfume of tobacco smoke draw the viewer in before the lights come up. There she sits, smoking a pipe, eyeing the audience with suspicion. The drum beats and familiar voice of the oboe as the musical score heats up, push Acogny into a frenzy of sequential movements. The French monologue (alas, my French has faded after all these years) from African author Aime Cesaire’s 1950 “Speech on Colonialism” sounds accusatory, but it’s the embodied power Acogny puts forth — her flat, bare feet intimately grounded, her long arms flung, her pelvis at one point relentlessly pumping powers it all. As smoke fills the space, Acogny pulls up the floor of her claustrophobic stage and slaps white paint on herself, brushes it in wide swaths on this box, filled with smoke. Now wearing a white bra, her lower body hidden beneath the floor, her eyes, bore into the darkened theater. Mon Elue Noire’s bold statement of black bodies, of African women, of seizing a voice from those — white colonialists — who for centuries silenced body, voice and spirit rings forth both sobering and inspiring.

I was just introduced to formerly D.C.-based choreographer/dancer MK Abadoo’s work this year and I’m intrigued. Her evening-length Octavia’s Brood at Dance Place in June, time travels, toggling between Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and a futurist vision of the world where women of African descent reclaim their bodies and voices in an ensemble work that takes inspiration also from the writings and commentary of science fiction writer Octavia Butler. The work begins with a bantaba — a meeting or dancing ground. The audience is invited onto the stage to encircle the dancers. The women, clad in shades of brown, fall to their knees, rise only to fall again to all fours. Beauteous choral music accompanies this section. Soon they stretch arms widely reaching to the sides. A sense of mysterious spirituality fills the space, a space once more enriched by the uncompromising presence of strong, graceful black women’s bodies. Octavia’s Brood is not simply about memory. It navigates between past, present and future while celebrating the durability of black women in America – there’s a holy providence at play in the way Abadoo and her dancers draw forth elemental, earth-connected movement.

IMG_2038They toss their arms backwards, backs arching, leg lifting, while a conscious connection to the floor remains ever present. Later, we see these same dance artists on stage, the audience now seated, on a journey that draws them to support and uphold one another. There’s a gentle firmness in their determination and a tug and pull in the choreography, underscored by a section where the women are wrapped in yards of brown fabric, a cocoon of protection. Then as they unwind it feels like rebirth.

In September Abadoo premiered a program featuring “LOCS” and “youcanplayinthesun,” commissions by the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Dramaturg Khalid Yaya Long wrote in the program that these pieces too draw inspiration from Afro-futurist sci-fi author Butler. But they also wrestle with intracultural racism. Poet Marita Golden called it “the color complex … the belief in the superiority of light skin and European-like hair and facial features” among African Americans, and others. The six dancers clad in white fuse a modern and African dance vocabulary, but more essential to the work are the smaller gestural moments. Like when an older dancer, Judith Bauer, proudly gray haired, sits on a stool and braids and combs Abadoo’s hair. She carries a rucksack, which slows and weighs down her gait. Later we see that the bag is filled with lengths of hair, locs, suggesting the burden black women carry on whether they have “good” — straight — or “bad” — curly or kinky — hair. But that quiet moment, when Bauer tends to Abadoo’s hair — it’s a maternal act, sacred and memorable for its resonance to so many who have sat in a chair while their mother, grandmother or aunt hot combed, plaited, flattened or styled unruly hair into something not manageable but acceptable to a society that has denigrated “black hair.”

Catherine Foster of Camille A. Brown & Dancers_ink_Photo by Christopher Duggan (2)Interestingly, in ink, Camille A. Brown’s world premiere at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in November, also features black women’s hair — a subtext in a larger work that wrestles with African American identity. The evening was made more vivid by a live jazz percussion quartet helmed by Allison Miller. Structured with compelling dance vignettes that bring African American cultural and societal mores to the fore ink speaks an oft-silenced vocabulary through bodies, gestures, postures and poses. A solo by Brown feels like a griot’s history lesson articulated with highly specific gestures that vividly reflect what could be read as “woman’s work” — dinner preparations, wringing laundry, caregiving. Later Brown gives us a different story, of two guy friends — first they’re wonder-filled kids, then they hang ten, basketball their game of choice. But, unseen, unspoken, something hardens them. Later an intimate duet shows a loving couple behind closed doors. But that love belies the challenges outside that arduous nest. In ink, Brown has completed her black identity trilogy, which included Black Girl: Linguistic Play, by consciously asserting the beauty and bounty of black bodies, souls and spirits that inform, intersect and shape our larger American culture.

Other standouts for me during 2017 ranged from a new work for the Ailey company by Kyle Abraham, “Untitled America,” with its narratives of incarcerated citizens and their family members, and a simple yet powerful palette of pedestrian and gestural elements, to Lotus, a rollicking tap family reunion at the newly renovated Terrace Theater, upstairs at the Kennedy Center, that traced the home-grown percussive dance from early roots to a high-spirited finale, with plenty of meditative percussive and narrative moments in between — plus enough flashy footwork.

It was also a year of change at many Washington, D.C. dance institutions. Dance Place’s founding director, the indomitable Carla Perlo retired in the summer, along with her long-time artistic associate Deborah Riley, passing the reins to choreographer/dancer/educator Christopher K. Morgan. It’s too early to tell whether Dance Place will move in new directions, but it appears that the organization is in solid hands. Morgan continues to make his own work for his company, lending continuity to the profile of a working artist-slash-administrator-slash-artistic-director.

We also have a better sense of the direction The Washington Ballet will be moving toward under artistic director Julie Kent. It appears that predictions of a company that resembles American Ballet Theatre, where Kent spent her stage career as a principal ballerina, are coming true. Remarks that The Washington Ballet is now “ABT-South” are no longer facetious; they’re reality. Kent has brought in her colleagues Xiomara Reyes, school director, and her husband, Victor Barbee, as her associate artistic director. And her commissions, too, have been ABT-centric, from an atrocious tribute to President John F. Kennedy called “Frontier,” from her former partner Ethan Steifel to upcoming commissions by Marcelo Gomes (who recently resigned from ABT under a cloud of suspicion over sexual allegations not related to ABT). But Washington, which gets a surfeit of ballet riches with annual visits from not only ABT, but also New York City Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet and other top ballet companies, doesn’t need an “ABT-South.” The city needs a ballet company that speaks to the needs of the District and its environs, not the international ideal of Washington. An ideal Washington ballet company would be one that nurtures ballet artistry that is unique and relevant to hometown Washington, not government Washington. Former artistic director had one vision of a ballet company and some of its works under his direction made singular statements. What the city and its dance audiences don’t need? More Giselles, Don Quixotes or Romeo and Juliet by a mid-sized troupe.

The region also suffered a loss in The Kennedy Center’s decision to shutter the Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company. While the company never, or rarely, in its 17 years achieved the notoriety or success one would have wished for an ensemble founded by choreographer George Balanchine’s elusive muse, the early December program hinted at missed possibilities. Her company’s farewell program, a tribute to Balanchine, was strongly danced, an aberration for a company that often looked ill-prepared and at times a bit sloppy on stage, alas hinting at missed possibilities in the loss of her directorship.

2017 was also a year where dance — particularly big name ballet companies — made the news, and not in a good way. Following in the footsteps of the #MeToo movement, well-substantiated accusations of sexual harassment and improprieties against New York City Ballet ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins, rocked the ballet world. It’s again too soon to know if systemic change can come to this male-dominated leadership model and the endemic hierarchical organization of most ballet companies; but change has been a long time coming to the ballet world where hierarchy and male power reigns supreme.

Let’s hope for a new year where that status quo will be upended as ballet companies — among other companies — strive for a more equitable, comfortable and safe creative and artistic environment. The dancers deserve it. The choreographers deserve it. The art deserves it. Let 2018 be a year of change for good.

December 31, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017


Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on November 8, 2010

“Fly: Five First Ladies of Dance”
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.
November 2, 2010

“Fare Well: The End of the World As We Know It OR Dancing Your Way to Paradise!”
Maida Withers Dance Construction Company
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.
November 7, 2010

By Lisa Traiger
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger

“We need more women presidents, like in Brazil,” declares the forceful, smoky voiced Germaine Acogny as she marches down the aisle of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. “Yes we can! Yes we can!” she chants in her butter-melting French accent, a black feather boa glamorously tossed over her shoulders, her shaved head shining. The Senegalese dancer, making and teaching movement since 1968, is a stunner: tall, lanky, arms that reach on forever and beyond, legs as solid as tree trunks. She walks accessing the full power of her pelvis, not with a thrust, or a bump and grind, but a simple, direct foot stamping or caressing the ground, as necessary. Later on stage, an internal whir stirs her hips with fulsome relish. But Acogny’s dance is not one that takes mere pleasure in her physical instrument: it’s a call to action, a political demonstration, and, taking place on election eve, it’s a call for woman spirit and woman strength to topple what has become the power of the status quo. Joined by video of traffic and slashes of rain and finally a tree in the moonlight, “Songbook Yaakaar” or “Facing up to Hope,” as the piece is called, is a demand for a change of course.

But Acogny’s cry for more women presidents in a dance-centric crowd — and the “Fly” program, devoted only to women dancer/choreographers — can also be heard as a call for more fearless women choreographers. We know modern dance’s history, birthed a century ago by powerful, independent women. Yet today the form suffers not only from a lack of funding, but an absence of prominent female leaders. Of late, the field lacks powerhouse women who are creative forces –- where are our Martha Grahams, Doris Humphreys, Anna Sokolows, Katherine Dunhams? With our founding and even second generations gone, our next cohort of women dance matriarchs has not attained the same power, status, prestige and notoriety these earlier women garnered. So much so, that Dance magazine editor Wendy Perron was concerned enough by the lack of prominent women’s voices in the modern dance field to keep a running tally of women choreographers. The accolades, alas, these days seem to go to the Marks, Bills, Joes and Stephens of modern dance. That makes this program — five women, five dances, five distinctive voices — all the more necessary, even in 2010.

In “Fly” we have the prescription, if not a cure, for this issue of under-recognized female modern dance role models. The five African-American women of “Fly: Five First Ladies” are not merely notable female choreographers, but “women of a certain age” –- all 60 or older — who continue to assert a powerful stage presence. There’s Bebe Miller, 60 this year, reprising her 1989 solo “Rain,” a juicy evocation of earth and spirit, danced before and upon a grassy rectangle of sod. Clad in a deep red velvet dress on the green grass of an otherwise bare stage, Miller’s spare and intentional movements — a swinging arm, a hand reaching backward, a deep, chewy plie, nuzzling and burrowing into the ground — are accompanied initially by a sparely minimalist score by Hearn Gadbois, then the piece blossoms with Heitor Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5. Part priestess, part contented nature lover, Miller attends and attunes to earth, air, sky and, the title, rain, through her subtle but not inconsequential gestures.

From 1972, “The Creation,” a solo richly spoken and danced by Carmen de Lavallade, too, draws on ideas of earthly grandeur and creative spiritual forces. In this case, using poet James Weldon Johnson’s retelling of the Biblical creation myth from “God’s Trombones.” The piece is a dramatic and forceful rendering of other worldly forces and grace, exquisitely performed by a ravishing de Lavallade. Draped in a red gown, her chin lifted and gaze direct, her fingers caress and conjure the still air around her as if ordering up the heavens and earth from whole cloth. In “If You Didn’t Know,” wiry but steel-girded Dianne McIntyre’s solo features jazz inflections, poetry and an audio montage of late filmmaker St. Clair Bourne speaking on the challenges of being a black artist. Tiny, but muscular, draped in a white full-length tunic and skirt, McIntyre offers up her own posturing, leveling the jazz notes with a flutter of her arm, puncturing a well-directed point with a fist, standing in defiance as Gwendolyn Nelson-Fleming sings on tape and pianist George Caldwell winds his way through a song called “If You Don’t Know Me.” It’s both a hot and cool performance, regal yet testy, even impatient in the flings, and leg swoops that bubble and swish around her skirt. McIntyre still has a hold over her audience, and still makes work that matters in pointed ways.

Finally, in tandem with Acogny’s political defiance, Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s “Bring ‘em Home” offers a rejoinder, equally political and personal. Pumping music by Rebirth Brass Band romps and rolls as Zollar lays crumpled, raising a white handkerchief in surrender. But stoically she rises, rolls back her velvety shoulders and catches the beat. Second lining, Zollar calls her performance, and it reflects the down, but not nearly out, status of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, injecting its rich music and dance culture into her solo. Main line paraders who walk among the first string of bands in a funeral or other procession are, in New Orleans fashion, typically followed by a second line. These amateurs and hangers on are not without skill, as they join the parade to twirl parasols, wave handkerchiefs and march to their own jovial beat. Zollar, too, honors these second liners who made up the most damaged wards of the washed out but not drowned city. With her simple and unaffected steps, she manages to make a statement about dispossession and racism, especially in her vocal call to “Bring ‘em home.” As she marches off, one arm rises, a signifier of praise and defiance.


Washington has its own grande dame of modern and post-modern dance: 74-year-old Maida Withers, who founded her Dance Construction Company in 1974. Continuing to make and tour new works, Withers, still a professor at George Washington University, brought her current piece, the excessively titled “Fare Well -– The End of the World As We Know It OR Dance Your Way To Paradise!” to Washington after touring to New York, Kenya, Utah and Brazil. A lengthy solo featuring Steven Hilmy’s electronic sound score performed live, as well as poems by David McAleavey and Alex Caldiero, the work is an unrestrained call to action. Never one to shy away from hot-button issues, here Withers, swathed in a white tunic over bright red undergarments, her shock of matching white hair, becomes Gaia, a literal mother earth, a crone warning all to heed the environmental chaos. The video backdrop by Ayodamola Okunseinde features a moving landscape of dried earth, cracked ice, mountains, deserts, smoke and fire, along with wildlife. First carrying an empty water jug, Withers, still lanky and fearless, engulfs the Dance Place black box stage. She’s all sharp elbows, wide lunges, expansive low leaps and crashes to the ground. At one point from a stooped position, she arises to a tremor, fists vibrating as drums beat a warning. At another, her jaw drops open, face contorted in a silent scream. Withers remains tireless and “Fare Well” proves to be her tour de force. The quietly introspective trio, “Naked Truth” followed, danced by broad-chested but gentle partner Anthony Gongora, quirky, quick-footed Tzveta Kassabova and petite, gazelle-like Giselle Ruzany. This first performance beats with a lifeforce, especially in the wake of Withers’ urgent admonition: “What do I know about … children … dwindling rivers … deserts … groundwater used up …?” There’s more zest and ease to “Naked Truth” with its restful, friendly partnerships intertwining and separating then re-alligning. It serves as an apt anecdote, following Withers’ razor-sharp screed.

Photo Maida Withers in “Fare Well” by Ayo Okunseinde
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger