Dallas — Dallas Black Dance Theatre strayed ever so slightly Friday night at the Wyly Theatre into the realm of the calm and lighthearted, far from its usual all-jets-firing display of prowess. The change in the program called “Director’s Choice” was gratifying.
At first, the opening of Christopher Vo’s touch(listen) did not bode well: six couples crawl backward on their rumps like rowers, each woman leaning into a man’s chest. But once upright, they loop and flow, as smooth as seaweed. They gather in masses, fanning out like paper dolls, or else engage in big, swooping lifts like so many paper airplanes. Joby Talbot’s “Similarities Between Diverse Things” to piano, violin, cello and vibraphone, with its haunting and yet lulling quality, contributed to a sense of otherworldly calm.
The two premieres were a mixed bag. Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s The B-Side took a risk that involved audience participation. The idea was certainly novel: give the audience wireless earphones and let them play with the dials, picking their preferred soundtrack for three original compositions by composer Michael Thurber. The first sounds like the B-side of a Motown album, the second acoustic, the third an electric synthesizer.
My guess is that most of the audience switched dials frequently, until realizing that there was little difference in the overall effect.
As for the dance, it was lively with a vague disco club feeling. It opens with six leggy women in tiny, sparkly dresses skittering around stage, swinging their legs and offering a shimmy or two. They looked like prancing fillies.
In the second section, men and women (now wearing brilliant-hued dresses) sized each other up before deciding it was safe to dance together. Then everyone disappeared, leaving only Kayah Franklin, carrying a basket with a book and a blanket that she spread out on the floor, and a goofy Sean J. Smith in shorts and eyeglasses. Aware of the man behind her, Ms. Franklin doused herself with generous amounts of perfume. He boldly stepped forward. Their encounter was brief. She grabbed her belongings and took off.
The fourth section brought everyone back for a jaunty romp.
The entire enterprise seemed more of a sketch than a dance, and would have fared better had the music not been so B-grade.
Matthew Rushing’s Tribute, the recipient of a grant from the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund, was much more serious and slightly more ambitious. There is nothing new about throwing works onto the video screen (“Tribute,” “Heritage,” “Legacy,” “Ancestors”), or having dancers quote from famous black artists. Too often, however, the words spoken by dancers were unintelligible. The recorded voices were another thing, with comments like that of Pearl Primus: “Why do I dance? Dance is my medicine; dance is the fist with which I fight the sickening ignorance of prejudice.”
As for the dancing—jazzy and freewheeling, vaguely African in style—it was splendid, as was original music by Ted Rosenthal and Alex Paton. The stage was awash with ever-changing colors of peach, rose, violet, cerulean blue and umber, with dancers sometimes seen only in silhouette. In one such section, 11 dancers are lined up in silhouette as a single woman dashes in front of their ranks, melds with them, and yet another takes her place from behind.
There are many brief sequences, with the most surprising one a sophisticated tap solo by Mr. Smith while Claude Alexander III, at the back, sings a lovely melody.
Near the end, all 12 dancers fall to the ground one by one only to rise again and spin and glide, heads back and arms lifted. That fall and rise is a companion metaphor for Donald McKayle’s comments: “[dance] is like a tree with a trunk and branches and twigs—and we are all part of this family tree which we call modern dance.”
As a tribute to the pioneers in modern dance, Tribute does exactly that while promising a healthy future.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.