Dallas — By now, one assumes that Dallas Black Dance Theatre excels at anything thrown at them. They can elevate the pulse with dazzling leaps across the stage or still the heart with a haunting gaze and simple gesture. Thus, it’s usually repertory choices and choreographic quality that affect the overall outcome of a performance.
At the peak of their 40th anniversary season, this year’s Cultural Awareness series presented at the Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center delivers a sweetly satisfying blend of past works with a nostalgic premiere to tie it all together. It’s a curious mix, because although it showcases the many talents of the company, the performance overall isn’t as explosive or mind-blowing as others have been.
But that’s perfectly fine. One need not feel as though the heart has been through the wringer or that the soul has traveled along with the whirlwind of physicality to be touched by a concert. This is not to say that none of the above occurs at moments throughout the evening, but the feeling overall is a bit more laid-back.
A number of elements contribute to this. First, the works allow the dancers to be themselves. Take the opening for example, excerpts from Bruce Wood’s Smoke. Set to music by Ray Charles, it features DBDT and Encore! dancers sharing the stage for some sassy shimmying, smooth traveling patterns, and just plain fun. A sense of unrestrained ease pervades throughout Wood’s signature gestural phrases and partnering transitions. De’Anthony Vaughan and Lailah Duke especially shine.
Darryl B. Sneed’s …And Now Marvin takes the music and themes of another prominent African-American musician Marvin Gaye for a work that has a drastically different vocabulary than Smoke, but embodies many of the same qualities. Appearing third in the program and choreographed in 1995 by the former DBDT principal and associate artistic director, it displays a style of modern dance that tends to get lost in the current trends of contemporary ballet and modern.
Obvious Ailey and Horton motifs weave in and out, and the luxurious pacing allows the audience time to savor and enjoy with no less awe than if the dancers had crammed every movement possible into each breath. The dancers portray themes of jubilancy, love, anger, and outrage amidst suspended extensions, controlled turns, and expansive shapes. Sean Smith stuns as usual, but Alyssa Harrington is starting to draw more attention as her artistry develops.
The first act is not all fun and games, though. Another element that makes this show so gratifying is the strategic placement of two controlled yet intense solos between the playfulness of the aforementioned works.
Asadata Dafora’s iconic 1934 work Ostrich is about as simple as it gets (by DBDT standards) yet is one of the more powerful of the evening due to casting. The stately strut around the stage to a simple recorded drum, undulating arms and torso, and controlled forced-arch holds wouldn’t be so captivating had anyone but Keon K. Nickie been on stage.
Another work from the late Bruce Wood, The Edge of My Life…So Far performed by Nycole Ray, rounds out the first act. Intense timing dynamics are only outmatched by her piercing stare.
The sweet scent of nostalgia only heightens with Sean Smith’s premiere Interpretations, taking up the second act as homage to the 40-year history of the company. Recorded narration from DBDT alum combines with a video and photo reel of the organization’s past and present, while music revisits some of the feelings from the first act, with artists like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan providing an uplifting mood.
A plethora of costume changes and movement styles carry the audience through the many faces of DBDT. Precise execution and a classy but sensual quality open the work and pop up at various times throughout the piece. Beginning and ending in silhouette seems to be a favored tactic throughout, but the parts in between run the gamut of all things the dancers can offer.
In a piece like this, it’s difficult to give criticism, given the heightened emotional pull and historical gravity of the journey to which the work points, but the dance’s strength—showing the diversity of the company—is also its weakness. In an attempt to fit so much into it, certain areas find themselves somewhat neglected.
Powerful moments remain underdeveloped, especially the section “You Are Not Alone,” where the ladies don leotards and men wear briefs for slower choreography. A welcome change in dynamic, it’s simply too short. Later in the work, the men’s segment “Manic” feels disconnected from the rest of the piece, largely because the aesthetic feel is unlike any other section.
Overall, though, the evening is like a meal that has all the favorites, yet doesn’t overpower in any one flavor. It’s a pleasant, rewarding experience that ends with a smile of satisfaction.