“Familiar Crossings” the latest offering from The Dayton Contemporary Dance Company brought together works from the African-American choreographic legend Donald McKayle, contemporary master Ronald K. Brown, to the up and coming choreographic voice of Robert Priore and the Artistic Director Debbie Blunden Diggs. As the concert was structured or “programmed” this allowed for a viewing experience that was much more balanced artistically and contextually than their previous outing.
I believe that this balance, or mixture of older repertory works and newer works in the life of any dance company, depends on the commitment to the “ why” of presenting the historically significant choreographic works. In the case of The Donald McKayle’s masterpiece Rainbow ‘Round my Shoulder would have significantly benefited from the consideration of this essential question. Many dance companies struggle in dealing with this responsibility. New York City Ballet and Alvin Ailey are two organizations that deal with the weight and burden of said responsibility of performing iconic historical works of revered dance titans. The difficulty often lies in the lack of context for the audience of the importance and significance that it might possess. So the burden falls on the artist to present the work as potent and fully measured as possible.
Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder was first premiered in 1959, a time period in America’s cultural history in which the depiction of the deeply rich source material of African American life was not always being represented on our artistic stages. The chain- gang imagery of incarcerated black men is a powerful image that served its intended purpose to expose and generate a dialogue on race relations. As I was watching the work I immediately thought of an exhibition of James Pates visual art that is being presented at Bing Davis’s Ebonia Gallery (Check it out if you can), a powerful tour de force collection that conjures up these similar questions of identity and representation.
The opening imagery of the five men linked hand in hand speaks to the invisible bind that connects all of us as human beings. It is meant to jolt us and transport us to an unfamiliar cultural and psychological landscape. While this performance did not initially possess that power, it grew to possess it by the end. While the men performing possessed an impressive physicality. I felt as if something was missing on a spiritual/psychological level that this piece inherently possesses and requires. The literal primal cries of incarceration/ entrapment still provoked a response, which speaks to the artistic mastery of Donald McKayle’s choreography.
Os Padröes (Portuguese for “The Standards”), a quirky –pop fizzy, Pan-African, world mélange of music and imagery inspired by the works of Willis ”Bing” Davis, was an absolute delight. While I am not familiar with his previous work, Robert Priore brought a unique movement vocabulary that revved up the energy of both the audience and the dancers. I believe that the greatest strength this company possesses lies in its ability to attract fresh choreographic voices. I felt this performance was no exception. Using the bold geometric patterns of Mr. Davis’s painting as a blueprint, Mr. Priore was able to fully integrate his aesthetic into that of his chief inspiration. By having a rotating slideshow of Bing’s paintings projected on the scrim, we were allowed to be lost in the connection between these two artists. While I was watching this performance I was reminded of a portfolio of photographs by Daniel Tamagni, Gentlemen of Bakongo, that I recently reviewed. The photos and accompanying text brought to life the vivid colors and texture of this particular segment of Congolese society that dresses in vibrant and colorful tailored menswear. Juxtaposed against the backdrop of a region still reeling from the effects of civil war. The power of the photographic imagery was jolting and invigorating, much like this choreography. The jittery rhythmic pulses and clever transitional segments were a complete joy. I am sending specific kudos to Kimberly Jones and Jarel Waters for the lovely pas de deux that was a nice humanizing moment in the midst of this energetic work. This was just pure fun.
Common Threads, a world premiere by artistic director Debbie Blunden-Diggs, primary charm lied in its old school choreographic construction and intentions. Here we were presented with a contextual moment in the concert that allowed us to the examine contractions and weighted movement modern dance technique at its purest and most direct usage. A solo male figure dancing against a black background led us through a pretty much straightforward choreographic enterprise that enveloped us into a opaque narrative thread with three women joining him in the proceedings. This was not a work rooted in innovation but rather the significance of how modernism is represented by this mostly Horton technique driven company. This ultimately provides the answer to the question of “why” DCDC can and should matter.
The concert concluded with a re-staging of Children of the Passage, a collaborative work by Donald McKayle and Ronald K. Brown. This piece went through a similar evolutionary performance process that Rainbow ’Round My Shoulder went through earlier in the evening. What brought this rollicking, and what could be very mesmerizing piece into a clearer focus was the presence of Sheri “Sparkle” Williams. I marvel at what a true and mature artistic presence can do to elevate any artistic performance. What Ms. Williams brought to this work goes beyond technical skill, which she still has in abundance. It goes to what I can only describe as a transcendent ability to invigorate even the most sketchy of works with a joyous artistry. Leaving the theatre after witnessing her performance still inspires hope for what this company can and should be.