Dallas — What does it take to be a member of Dallas Black Dance Theatre? Unstoppable energy, an impeccable command of multiple genres, and plenty of attitude—if the group’s 39th season opener Director’s Choice at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Wyly Theatre gives any indication.
The company flies out of the gate with Hope Boykin’s In•ter•pret, a 2006 composition redesigned and restaged by Associate Artistic Director Melissa Young. White knee-length gaucho jumpsuits and music from Peter Tchaikovsky (which ballet enthusiasts and dance history nerds will recognize from George Balanchine’s Serenade) signal a traditional modern dance perhaps with some balletic notes, but Boykin has other plans.
Seven dancers begin in a horizontal line upstage. All at some point turn to face the audience, but instead of the lifted posture we’ve come to expect from the poised dancers of DBDT, they face the audience defiantly, sinking into their bodies a little as if saying, “Yeah, whaddya want?” As Katricia Eaglin flops to the floor on cue with the music, all stare with a judgmental stance.
As the dance continues, sassy and suave pedestrian gestures fit against segments of traditional modern dance vocabulary heavily influenced by Boykin’s Ailey career. Quick, precise isolations of hips, hands, and feet move in rapid succession, similar to the quality of a petit allegro. Distinctive character qualities emerge such as a flirtatious relationship between Michelle Hebert and De’Anthony Vaughan, a smooth, debonair Claude Alexander III, and a saucy air between Eaglin and Hana Delong, who engage in a delightful movement conversation akin to a modern dance battle. Controlled turns and gorgeous lines frequently appear, but even with the stunning moments, the dance doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Alexander softens the tone a little with the premiere of Solitude, choreographed by former company member Jamie Thompson with music by Steve Reich. The piece speaks not of the lonely image the word conjured, but rather the freedom one has when alone.
Clad only in high-waisted red shorts, Alexander advances across the stage first in a series of shapes then transitioning into smoother patterns which spiral to the floor then bound back up again. The choreography requires quite a bit of control, but it’s not an adagio, as the pace progresses evenly with the right amount of urgency. Alexander exhibits a subtle excitement, and just as Reich’s repetitive music begins to drain the energy a bit, the piece ends as the epitome of “short but sweet.”
The final dance of Act I, Talley Beatty’s A Rag, a Bone, and a Hank of Hair, brings a glorious sense of nostalgia with music from Prince and Earth, Wind, and Fire. A cityscape backdrop, dancers dressed in brightly colored costumes, and the opening notes of Prince’s “Erotic City” prep the viewer for a thrill ride like none other.
Created for the company’s 15th anniversary in 1991, the work epitomizes the jazz and African-influenced modern dance that so many African-American choreographers worked with in the few decades prior. With a focus on the extremities, the dancers fling and stretch their bodies to the fullest with a tension that creates splashy picturesque moments. It’s different from the fluid isolations that we’ve come to expect from contemporary jazz and modern, but for those who took jazz dance around the time of the piece’s creation, it’s a walk down memory lane, with flashy fan kicks, staccato cross ball-changes, and explosive layouts.
Five ladies continue that jazz theme with Margo Sappington’s Step Out of Love, originally created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 1987 but a premiere for DBDT. A quote in the program gives a hint to the meaning: “Whether you leave someone or they leave you, there is always a time when you fidget.” With a commissioned synthesized rock score from Stephen Forsyth, the dancers begin a gradual twitch as they sit draped over clear chairs. Overall, it’s the least technical of the pieces, although the dancers sail through multiple turns and battement layouts with ease. It’s not as polished as the others, but the moving light bars cause quite a buzz.
The company saves the best for last with Christopher L. Huggins’ Night Run. Set in three movements to a varied score by Rene Aubry, the dancers show off their ballet and modern technical skills with all the energy from the previous dances. It’s the most virtuosic, with fast turns, stag leaps, and a great petit allegro from the guys. The second section calms down a bit with intimate partnering and a wistful but passionate quality. The frantic running starts the final segment, with some incredible leaps by Delong. Keon Nickie exhibits a breathtaking earthy quality, while Richard A. Freeman explodes with intensity. The first and second year dancers undoubtedly demonstrate growth in artistry, as well.
Overall, this is the most enjoyable, uplifting show DBDT has presented in a while, and illustrates the excellence and astounding versatility of its members.