Dallas — Nina Simone and Odetta Holmes—talk about a powerful duo! These two historic figures provided both inspiration and soundtrack for Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s (DBDT) Cultural Awareness concert. The program, viewed Friday night, featured two multi-sectioned works based on the lives, social activism, and legacy of each artist. Transporting spectators through their experiences by way of the music they left behind, DBDT physically embodied themes of struggle, equality, and relationship. Gripping, compelling, and still increasingly relevant, this production proved that advocacy can also be art.
Originally premiered in 2011, The Nina Simone Project made a successful return to the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. Choreographed by Dianne McIntyre, the work traveled through Simone’s life by way of nine songs and personal interviews. Hana DeLong opened the show with slow, meticulous balances as Simone’s voice played overhead. DeLong melted through the space just enough to draw attention but took nothing away from the artist’s words—a perfect balance. As the phrase “music was a gift from God,” echoed on repeat, additional company members crossed the stage with upward stretched arms and undulating contractions.
In one important moment, DBDT addressed race, prejudice, and compassion through “Color is a Beautiful Thing.” Using their only Caucasian dancer Renee Walters, the piece followed her character’s interaction with the other company members according to the words of the song. At first, her crossed arms and shaking head signaled distrust as a trio of movers hopped, rolled, and spun around her. But by the end of the section, Simone’s lighthearted tune invited Walters to embrace their differences and alter her perspective—a seemingly simple solution to a complicated problem. Yet as audience members watched the scene unfold, we wondered, “shouldn’t it always be this simple?”
Jolting into more vigorous energy, “Be My Husband” showed three couples in combative duets. Massive lifts and push & pull themes dominated this jazzy, fast-faced section. But the most striking moment occurred as the three men performed a series of precise, dizzying chaines turns—a remarkable visual and stunning display of technique.
Another section captivating section was manifested in “Backlash Blues.” Featuring Lailah Duke in powerful, controlled brushes and fluid curves, her movement exhibited both strength and grace as a feisty, rebellious atmosphere filled the space.
“Fodder in Her Wings” ignited a more serious mood with the entrance of blindfolded dancers and a distraught Hana Delong. Spastic falls, tense shaking, and desperate collapses characterized this scene.
While DBDT’s tribute to Simone certainly captured the strength and emotional range of the company, the shining star of the evening was, without a doubt, Odetta. Choreographed by Alvin Ailey’s own Mathew Rushing, the work originally premiered in 2014. In its first and only restaging, the piece translated seamlessly to the bodies of DBDT company members. Similar to The Nina Simone Project, the piece featured 10 sections set to legendary civil rights advocate and folk singer Odetta Holmes’ music.
Xavier Mack’s solo in “John Henry” was highlight number one. His incredibly fluid undulations, circular momentum, and sweeping turns exuded tranquil strength. Mack’s sudden stops and slicing arms added burst of grounded-ness to this spellbinding choreography.
And the roll of profound movement didn’t stop there—in “There’s a Hole in the Bucket,” Jasmine White-Killins and De’Anthony Vaughan came together for a clever, comical duet. Adding comedic elements to the modern dance aesthetic is a tricky task—a test in which Rushing passed with flying colors. Stiff, rebounding gestures cultivated highly characterized individual roles for the dancers. White-Killins’ axe-slicing motions and exasperated facial expressions countered Vaughan’s spastic flops and bouncy arms. The back and forth frustration was playful, tasteful, and well executed—causing more than a few laughs from the crowd.
“Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” highlighted Claude Alexander III’s stunning extensions and suspended dynamic qualities. True to the Ailey aesthetic, Alexander effortlessly held his leg to the side with outstretched arms before melting into juicy isolations. Another mesmerizing display of technique and maturity.
Not only did these two pieces demonstrate the incredible athleticism, strength, and presence of the dancers, but it did so by celebrating the accomplishments of the powerful African-American women that came before. Themes of unity, kindness, and social justice gave the evening an added emotional value that’s difficult to replicate.