Dallas — The moments that have stayed with me days after watching Dallas Black Dance Theatre rehearse Matthew Rushing’s Odetta (2014) were, interestingly enough, not the full bodied-movements, grandiose jumping passes or powerful partnering skills, though these elements were incredible and well suited for the dancers. No, it was the quieter moments where the dancers relied on basic instinct and human connection to fulfill their roles that have left an imprint on me.
A perfect example is the opening scene when company member Kayla Franklin (who shares this role with Lailah Duke) slowly walks toward the audience as she cuts through the space with her arms and curves her spine over. As the opening notes of Odetta Holmes’ rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” fill the space, a joyous expression crosses Franklin’s face as she circles her hips and bounces from heel to heel to an internal beat that soon takes over her entire body.
Another memorable instance is the section where Jasmine White-Killins and De’Anthony Vaughan use mainly arm gestures while sitting on side-by-side stools in center stage to “There’s a Hole in The Bucket” sung by Holmes and Harry Belafonte. The song is fun and playful and White-Killins and Vaughan do an admirable job of conveying the emotions in the catchy tune. For example, as White-Killins begins to lose her patience, her arm movements become sharper and more pronounced, such as when she demonstrated how to sharpen an ax by rubbing her forearm intently across her right thigh.
And yet another picturesque moment occurs as Sierra Noelle Jones and Zion Pradier dance on a self-made dock to Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water” while the rest of the dancers watch attentively from their seated positions. At first I thought the couple was dancing on a stage, but as Jones cups her hand and extends it over the edge of the stage it transforms into a dock. The dock is actually six benches constructed of different-sized squares, which enables the benches to interlock with one another to appear as train seats as well as add a cool visual affect when they are placed vertically in other sections of the work.
“I wanted to work with something that was interchangeable and from scene to scene could kind of morph into whatever the scene was about,” Rushing says about the set. “I knew I would be dealing with a lot of different sections because Odetta Holmes’ work was so huge that I would be working with Blues and Jazz, protest songs and works from musical theatre so I knew it would be very layered within itself. So, whatever the set would be it would have to be able to morph and change in these different environments and settings.”
Come to find out, the idea for the set was actually a miniature I.Q. test that Rushing says he found while on tour in Germany and what we see onstage today is a much larger replica of these wooden Lego-like parts of this cubed puzzle.
This work also requires a high level of maturity, vulnerability and trust, which, when watching the dancers rehearse, it’s obvious to see DBDT possesses these qualities in spades. These ingrained abililties can also be attributed to why DBDT is the first company to perform Odetta outside of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.
“They are extremely versatile dancers,” Rushing says about DBDT. “They are able to go in and out of different genres of dance and that skill is required for the ballet Odetta so I just felt it was an easy fit.”
He adds, “They are incredible artists who are also extremely expressive as well as technically strong in different styles of dance. And just like Odetta’s work was extremely diverse and layered I feel that the artists of Dallas Black Dance Theatre are exactly that as well. They are extremely diverse and they have many layers to their artistry.”
This is not the first time Rushing has worked with DBDT. The rehearsal director for the Ailey Company choreographed Tribute for DBDT in 2016, which was also when he first brought up the subject of DBDT possibly doing Odetta sometime in the future.
“I remember being in tech rehearsal sitting next to Ms. (Ann) Williams and it hit me at that point. I could really see the dancers of Dallas Black Dance Theatre performing Odetta,” Rushing says in a press release from DBDT.
As for Rushing’s inspiration for this work, singer and actress Odetta Holmes, he says, “One of the biggest “aha!” moments I had with choreographing this piece was finding out just how Odetta Holmes used her gift as an instrument and as a weapon for social justice. That spoke to me directly and it encouraged me and challenged me that I could do the same with choreography and with being a dance artist.”
He adds, “She might not have been the person leading the marches, but she was the person who led the rallies before the marches and I was like WOW how amazing that we all in a sense have a piece in this puzzle about making this world a better place. And she was very confident and clear that her place fell into using her gift as a singer and musician and I really connected with that when I found out about her work and how she literally changed the world with her gift.”
Odetta makes its Dallas premiere at DBDT’s Cultural Awareness Series, Feb. 15-17, at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas. The program also includes Dianne McIntyre’s Nina Simone Project, an evening-length work DBDT premiered back in 2011.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com