Dallas — The Dallas Black Dance Theatre indeed travels into uncharted territory with this year’s Director’s Choice, presented at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas. The usual company standbys are noticeably absent. No Ailey works or pieces from other historical black modern dance choreographers, no longtime company favorites, and no dances to popular vocal artists from years past. Instead audiences find themselves immersed in a fresh intensity, caught up in a whirlwind of virtuosity. At times it’s heavy and driving, while other moments provide a suspenseful calm but with no less power.
The lineup of choreographers reveals remarkable artists, but (outside artistic director Bridget L. Moore) ones who have only appeared on the national and regional radars in the last decade. All four works are premieres for DBDT (one of them a world premiere) but they still originate within the last five years.
In other words, this is the “newest” performance of the company in recent memory.
The evening goes from zero to 60 in no time flat with Juel D. Lane’s How to Kill a Ghost. Dancers clad in black athletic wear with white accents and a black-and-white plaid shirt tied around the waist maneuver through an intriguing movement vocabulary that’s one of the better blends of hip hop and contemporary modern.
Minimal lighting in the beginning allows the audience to focus solely on the dancers, as they fling arms and legs in multiple directions, creating a blur of movement. The seemingly inhuman speed continues against a thrumming beat, and when relationships begin to build, one remembers that this dance actually has a concept (that of holding onto something which no longer exists) rather than being a vehicle for forceful physicality.
A second part after the blackout allows the audience to breathe, beginning with silence and slowing down to more traditional modern vocabulary. But then they hit the gas pedal again, with stunning solos by Claude Alexander III and Lailah Duke. The former delivers amazingly fast turns as he fights an invisible foe, while the latter demonstrates a lovely sense of suspension and fire.
Jasmine White-Killins and Alexander dial the pace back a bit with Rebecca Troyak’s Monophonic, but a heaviness still pervades. Standing close, they make very little physical contact at first, but the tension still exists. The work explores a variety of reactions in human interaction, which shows up in expressions of curiosity, defiance, and shock, and in various partnerings and manipulations of each other.
A suspenseful, operatic female voice adds a touch of mournfulness, and while the crescendo of the music overpowers the duet a bit, the simple ending speaks volumes. The two come together in calmness, make contact, then take their gazes to the audience, creating a satisfying conclusion.
Moore’s much-anticipated expansion of her duet from the spring spreads out in two parts, before and after intermission. Uncharted Territory: Body of Evidence (a recipient of a grant from the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund) comes from her travels through parts of Asia while she was a visiting professor in South Korea. When the original duet premiered at the TITAS Command performance earlier this year, the costumes by Fernando Hernandez (unlike anything seen in a dance concert) received as much attention as the choreography, a theme that continues here. The same design of gridlines where whole pieces of fabric should be sprouts into various incarnations with a distinct Gaultier feel.
The uniqueness of the costumes (mostly black with accents of white) combined with dramatic performances and flamboyant gestures conjure a multitude of images. It’s diva spectacle with hints of a classy post-apocalyptic dictator and loads of fabulous.
Several wheeled platforms generate opportunities for contrast and visual appeal. They become especially exciting when maneuvered around the stage with dancers balancing effortlessly atop them. It also allows for Xavier Santafield to exhibit a jaw-dropping center split held only inches from its surface and others to deliver leisurely turns raised from the stage floor. Sean Smith especially shines in those moments.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a distinct style for the movement vocabulary, as it displays tastes of Afro-Caribbean, voguing, and contemporary amidst sprinklings of more traditional modern. The result proves fascinating, exciting, and simply astonishing.
After intermission, the choreography grows even more complex, yet has some more familiar technical movements, including some marvelous attitude turns. The energy softens a bit, as the ethnic fusion beats melt into a soft piano with more subtle movements to match. Then all pistons fire again with an aggressive, dramatic finish featuring a fashion show of other costumes. That last part seems only to display more of Hernandez’s designs rather than conceptually contributing to the work.
The final work of the evening, Andy Noble’s Tower, offers a similar type of virtuosity as the previous three works, but attire, performance qualities, and choreographic nuances place this one in a completely different category. At the risk of oversimplification (and not to diminish the magnitude of the other pieces), this dance feels the most human. Costumes contribute to this, as the dancers wear more generic, casual clothing.
The original work, created in collaboration with Laura Harrell, featured 33 dancers. Beginning with thundering sounds accompanied by strobe lighting, the storm is only heightened by Michael Gordon’s score. The frenzied strings equally match the tension of this incarnation of the dance, as 22 performers from DBDT and Encore! march, slide, and whip around the stage. Lines of dancers travel forward, then retreat back, only to have more join in each time. With the intensity of the previous works, one wonders how the dancers have energy for Noble’s vigorous choreography. Smooth, yet aggressive maneuvers give way to violent spasms, almost like seizures, and at times, the dancers freeze in tableau.
Distinct floor patterns prove a key component to the urgent drive of this dance. The ebb and flow of bodies happens in diagonal, side to side, and upstage to downstage. Some areas of the choreography smooth out, breaking the staccato a bit, but overall, the dancers never let up. Growing weary, they slap the floor, fall to the ground, displaying complete and utter exhaustion.
A warm light from above signals relief, as the dancers reach up to touch the rain (actual water) that begins falling from above. Way too soon, the lights fade and the dance concludes.
Technical concerns might have limited the amount and placement of the rain, but what little there was and the abrupt finish of the piece create an anticlimactic end. Maybe I was expecting a Gene Kelly-style jig through the water or a playful jaunt through torrential rain like in Pina Bausch’s Vollmond.
Overall, the company has much to be proud of, and if Moore continues on this trajectory, even more exciting things are sure to come.