Dallas — What a change from November! Three months ago, Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Director’s Choice featured choreographers and works far from the typical offerings, yet delivered an aesthetic that provided a small dose of comfortable familiarity. It seemed a new direction for the company.
This year’s Cultural Awareness Series, presented at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas, continued giving audiences superb performances of the highest caliber and exquisite dancers but returned to the more traditional DBDT-style show lineup. It’s completely logical, given the series happens during Black History Month, and the four works on the bill this time embodied the purpose behind the annual performance perhaps more than in previous years.
It wouldn’t be a Cultural Awareness concert without an Alvin Ailey touch, and two choreographers fulfilled that requirement. Former Ailey member Christopher L. Huggins received double billing with His Grace, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, and Essence, a work dedicated to the multi-faceted strong women he’s encountered in his life. Ailey rehearsal director Matthew Rushing’s Tribute (a 2016 premiere developed with support from the TACA Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund) took up the second act as an homage to 20th-century black modern dance.
Rounding out the program was the much-anticipated Dallas premiere of Michelle Gibson’s Displaced, Yet Rebirthed, a look into the effects of Katrina evacuations and continuation of a rich New Orleans tradition.
The performance had so much educational potential, that the organization offered three sold-out student matinees to area schools and even hosted patrons from El Paso and Louisiana. Considering the wealth of material presented, I brought my 8-year-old daughter Vera, a seasoned dance patron already, to revel in the experience.
But we weren’t the only ones eager for the performance. A large group in attendance on Friday night moved me from my usual seat in the center, so for a different perspective, I opted to try out the left orchestra terrace. Not the best decision on my part, due to limited visibility, so take note next time you choose your seats at the Wyly.
Given the types of pieces and knowing the aesthetic of the company, I knew from the start the type of show I would see, and I’m never disappointed by the impressive display of physicality and unrestrained passion displayed. What most interested me were the reactions of those around me, especially those of my young one in tow. After all, dance is a two-way street. The artists communicate, the audience responds.
His Grace opened the performance, an appropriate choice given the celebration of the late Nelson Mandela’s centennial this year. Triumphant images of his life set the stage for the uplifting memorial to his persevering spirit. After the projections, dancers glided from upstage to downstage, illuminated only by the uplights that throw larger-than-life shadows onto the bare cyc. A fitting picture, set to minimal yet optimistic music by Moby.
The mood only rose with thrumming African beats and exuberant, flinging maneuvers. Sassy ladies and forceful men equally delivered tenacious performances, with Claude Alexander III executing impressive pirouettes. About half the audience was moving and grooving in their seats, responding to a passion that those of all ages felt. A bouncing and bobbing Vera gave it two thumbs up and five out of five stars. Not bad for an opening.
The tone subdued quite a bit for Essence, performed by Nycole Ray. Since the entire work was performed from a single chair, with barely any expansion out from it, it could have easily grown dull, especially given the soft piano notes of John Cage.
But this is Nycole. And even though her duties as DBDT: Encore! artistic director have taken her away from the stage most of the time, she’s still got it. She created a playful atmosphere that turned to one of determination mixed with some desperation. Proud, yet delicate, she captivated with the smallest of movements. Vera remarked, “I think she’s tired of waiting in the chair.” Unwrapping that statement could take another review.
It’s a testament to Nycole’s performance power that she could keep the attention of my second grader, while garnering a rating of 4.5/5 stars from her.
Gibson’s work proved a completely different experience, as it completely filled the senses and drove deep. Large projections of familiar NOLA landmarks and smooth jazz music provided an easy-going atmosphere for dancers in black pants, white shirts, and black ties and suspenders to enjoy each other’s company. A siren signaled the abrupt change with radar images of Hurricane Katrina and dancers whirling frantically around. Curtains flapped on stage, the mood grew even more desperate, and dancers portrayed hopelessness, as images of a devastated New Orleans dominated the visual on stage.
Sunni Patterson’s rhythmic voice delivering her poignant poem “We Know This Place” overloaded the senses even more against the whipping, swirling choreography and increasingly more heartbreaking images on screen.
That proved the breaking point for Vera. The subsequent jazz funeral procession with The Kickin’ Brass Band moving and playing on stage with the dancers only heightened the emotion, and she was no longer enthralled with the concert. Even the upswing in the mood couldn’t console her.
Patterned after the famous Second Line heavily entrenched in New Orleans culture, the funeral turned into a party, with Gibson arriving on stage as the Grand Marshal with her whistle. At first glance, the choreography looked like a freestyle groove. Heads bobbed in different directions, and arms flailed in various places with little semblance of uniformity and precision. A closer look, however, revealed intricately choreographed footwork and core movement that flowed into the extremities with reckless abandon. Dancers carried handkerchiefs and umbrellas, a staple among Louisiana celebration dances. They invite the audience to participate, and a Mardi Gras Indian donning a brilliant red costume entered from the back of the theater and traveled down the stairs.
But not everyone enjoyed the party, and my daughter’s increasing tears forced us to leave at intermission. Through her sadness, however, it opened the door for some good conversations about the good that can come out of tragedy. How even in the midst of hopelessness and despair, the human spirit endures, carries on, using dance as a medium of catharsis and rejoicing. Unfortunately, she gave this one 0/5 stars, but Gibson and dancers shouldn’t take this as an insult. The best dance of Act I was obviously the one that affected her the most.
Even though we missed Tribute, the cohesive, familiar DBDT performance highlights another issue. With the sudden and quiet departure of former artistic director Bridget L. Moore, one of the many unanswered questions is will the company return to the “Uncharted Territory” they touted at the beginning of their 41st season? Time will tell.