Brought to life in dance, Jacob Lawrence's vivid paintings

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company brings works by four choreographers to the Meany stage, paying tribute to the great Seattle painter and the African-American experience.
Crosscut archive image.

The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company embodies artist Jacob Lawrence. (DCDC)

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company brings works by four choreographers to the Meany stage, paying tribute to the great Seattle painter and the African-American experience.

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company's program at Meany Theatre last Friday, May 4, was based on an intriguing premise. Matt Krashan, the director of the dance and music series at Meany, years before suggested to the company that they develop a program drawn from the work of visual artist Jacob Lawrence, an icon of 20th century American representational art and a resident of Seattle for the last 30 years of his life until his death in 2000. As a result of that conversation, four choreographers were commissioned by Meany and other partners to create new dances inspired by Lawrence's vivid and kinetic paintings embodying the African American experience. The dances offered by the company, also known as DCDC, were choreographed by its artistic director, Kevin Ward, and by three renowned African-American dancemakers, Donald Byrd, Reggie Wilson, and Rennie Harris. They were premiered in February of this year in a program called "color-ography, n. the Dances of Jacob Lawrence." Seattle was the last stop on a 20-city tour. DCDC, founded by the visionary teacher/artist Jeraldyne Blunden in 1968 as a showcase for her students and to portray the African American experience through dance, is one of several outstanding contemporary dance companies in our country that focus on a repertoire by African-American choreographers, performed by African-American dancers. Some are single-choreographer companies such as Lula Washington Dance Theater in Los Angeles or Garth Fagan Dance in Rochester, N.Y., and others have a rotating repertoire such as DCDC or the Philadelphia-based Philadanco. The repertory companies have relied on a mix of older works by the modern masters such as Donald McKayle, Eleo Pomare, and Talley Beatty, combined with the works of younger choreographers including Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Bebe Miller, and works by home-grown talents, exemplified by DCDC's Ward. In a complex and competitive marketplace, DCDC has been smart with its approach by creating a number of "special event" choreographic programs that have broad interest and appeal. As part of the 2003 centennial of the Wright Brothers first powered air flight (the brothers ran a Dayton bicycle shop), the company commissioned six works to commemorate the event called "The Flight Project" which toured to 27 American cities. Currently, they are working on a project that honors the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Donald Byrd's "J Lawrence Paint (Harriet Tubman Remix)" opened the color-ography program at Meany with the most narrative, least abstracted work of the evening. A diminutive dancer, Sheri "Sparkle" Williams, as Harriet Tubman, appears and re-appears as she leads slaves to freedom and towards the unknown. Lawrence directly engaged Tubman's life and work in The Harriet Tubman Series, 1938-49, and again in 1967 in another series, Harriet and the Promised Land. One suspects that Byrd might also have drawn from another Lawrence masterwork, The Migration Series from 1940-41, about the Black migration from the southern U.S. to the north in the earlier part of the century. The piece had several sections, each performed to musical selections including Sarah Vaughn's wrenching version of "Strange Fruit" (a song about a lynching), and the music of Archie Shepp and Mondo Grosso. Byrd leads the viewer through a trail of exuberance and tears as Tubman's people struggle to find their place in a world not of their creation, and so often not in their control. It's a touching and disturbing work that alludes to things real and metaphorical - the travel through time and space on the Underground Railroad, as well as through a changing post-slavery world. A fearless choreographer of intellect and imagination, Byrd sometimes overwhelms his work with a too- aggressive style, replete with pitched-over bodies, confrontational looks, furious partnering, and legs extended as if daggers. It was good to see him use another part of his considerable movement arsenal, one with idiosyncratic gestures and more fully rounded movements that spoke to the heart and to memory. Many images and segments impressed: the anticipation of seated dancers all in a line waiting for the word from their leader; a tormented, expressionistic male solo about lynching; and the joys of liberation expressed through loose, athletic movement and big lifts defying gravity. The final segment of the dance, both elegiac and a hopeful prayer, was to Moby's "Natural Blues," an uptempo sampling of a Negro spiritual with the words "Oh lordy, troubles so hard" repeated again and again. Certain movements seemed to echo the yearning gestures from Alvin Ailey's "Revelations," but whether or not Byrd was paying homage to Ailey did not really matter, as both artists were honoring the lives and struggles of those who came before them. Another intriguing work was by Reggie Wilson, a choreographer seen recently at On the Boards with his company, Fist and Heel Performance Group. Wilson dubs his movement style "post-African/Neo HooDoo Modern dance," and it blends individual movements and phrases from African dance, American social dances, and post-modern idiosyncratic styles. A student of African and African-American culture, Wilson has spent much time doing research in the Mississippi Delta and working with dancers in the Caribbean and in several African countries. His restless inquiry into the sources of African-American dance and music was on display in his work, "We ain't goin' home but we finna to get the hell up outta here." It was the one piece in the evening with no program note connecting it to Jacob Lawrence, but like Byrd's piece, it bespoke journey. Again, we had a musical accompaniment that was a montage of various styles, ranging from the Banda-Dakpa people of the Central African Republic, Blueswoman Jesse Mae Hemphill, gospel and soul singer Al Green, and rapper Foxy Brown, among others. Wilson's music selections had little or no space between them, connecting aesthetically and chronologically as a unified score. Wilson seemed to be interweaving collective and individual memories and their movement sensibilities, each referencing one another. One example was a tribal-like round dance complemented by a segment showing circling hips by women in bright red hoop skirts. As the music progressed in time and place, the dance grew more individualized, but the motif of curvo-linear movement remained with outthrust hips and arms carving paths in the stage space. The crowd pleaser of the night was "Jacob's Ladder," created by Rennie Harris to the music of Zapp Mama. Harris is justly celebrated for taking hip hop out of clubs and off the small screen and fashioning it for the concert stage. He didn't disappoint an audience primed for a dance that would really bust some moves. Dressed in black and white, and performing in front of projected street scenes and films of urban life, the dancers were clearly enjoying Harris' full-out and highly kinetic movement, a paean to the vibrant and colorful works of Jacob Lawrence. While there was much to enjoy in the concert, I wondered why all the choreographers were men, and why Meany didn't devote some exhibit space (or program pages) to showing Lawrence paintings. The stage design for the evening, meant to help bring coherence to the whole and to underscore the individuality of each piece, achieved neither. The lighting grew wearisome over the course of the performance, continually moving dancers in and out of illuminated and dark areas and doing little to convey the richness of Lawrence's palette. The various images projected on screens and a scrim at the rear of the stage were often not clearly visible. The idea of projections did come alive in the last piece, however. Lawrence's monochromatic cartoon-like figures were seen alongside film of city traffic, giving added richness to the dancers' hip-hop exuberance.


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