Dallas — On Saturday, May 20 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, resident dance company Dallas Black Dance Theatre (DBDT) celebrated their 40th year with five works that ran the gamut from contemporary ballet to modern to jazz. The annual “Spring Celebration” also helped to usher in a new era of the company with the official announcement of new artistic director Bridget L. Moore. Her aesthetic and the soon-to-be new direction of DBDT would become clear with her presentations of Uncharted Territory (2017) and the restaging of Southern Recollections: For Romare Bearden (2013).
First commissioned by TITAS Presents for the 2017 Command Performance that happened earlier this month, Uncharted Territory demonstrates Moore’s aggressive and physical approach to choreography. Referencing fundamental modern dance technique (Horton) and Afro-Caribbean movements, as well as martial arts, the work felt like a statement on the status of young men, young African-American men, in the world today. Uncharted Territory carried forward a sense of curiosity about “maleness” and an intricate intimacy between the dancers – not sensual but one more concerned with power. The duet found Claude Alexander III and Kimara Wood at their best, performing with strong control and yet a primal and fluid quality. Clad in a contemporary approach to a colonial uniform, designed by costumer Fernando Hernandez, the exposed boning accentuated the rib cage, putting forth a layer of vulnerability. These men are exposed to the world, yet ready for a battle. The war that exists is between them, but who will emerge the victor? And is there even a winner when the conflict is between humanity itself? Uncharted Territory read as a metaphor on bravery and faith, and was a successful first showing of Moore’s very capable direction.
She solidified her place as a strong choreographic voice and director with her second work, Southern Recollections: For Romare Bearden. Originally created for DBDT in 2013, it is based on the work of Bearden, a Harlem Renaissance painter who chronicled the Great Migration and later became known for collages depicting the struggles of African-Americans. His paintings were full of life, passion, structure, and substance, all concepts that Moore wanted to emulated in her movement design, and a goal that she met head on. The opening image, an exposed metal grid, was visually stunning and highlighted the muscular forms of the dancers. The work was elegantly composed and tested the virtuosity of the company. Of all the works in the evening, this piece was the one that showcased the performers to the best of their abilities and demonstrated that they are a captivating ensemble of dancers.
The night also featured two works from guest artist Stephen Mills, Artistic Director of Ballet Austin, and a commissioning of Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite. Mills set Bounce, which he first created in 2010 in collaboration with Graham Reynolds—who is best known for his musical scores for Richard Linklater films—on eight of the company members. It is a technically challenging work that combines classical and contemporary ballet vocabulary and forces the dancers to just dance. No characters, no emotions, just an embodiment of the music and the movements. However, the performers seemed create characters where none were needed. Their smiling faces and stoic glances within the same sections of choreography seemed inharmonious with the direction of Bounce.
Mills’ second work, One/the body’s grace, was performed by two of his dancers from Ballet Austin, Aara Krumpe and Christopher Swaim. The neo-classical pas de deux showcased the grace and exquisite technique of the dancers, and the proficiency of Mills’ choreography. The sculptural movement choices, highlighted by Christopher McCollum’s simple, yet effective, costume design, told the story of how individual lives become one in an exploration of curiosity and intimacy.
That seemed to be a theme of the evening, with Moore’s Uncharted Territory and Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite; however, the latter’s take on curiosity and intimacy is more tongue-and-cheek. Created in 1983 and originally performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo, Tharp’s Sinatra Suite is a moody ballroom duet that plays with the trope of an old Hollywood romance. When Baryshnikov and Kudo first danced it, they embodied the humor and sarcasm that Tharp intended, painting themselves a matinee idol (Baryshnikov) and glamourous screen siren (Kudo). Those are some big shoes to fill, and stager John Selya gave dancers Kayah Franklin and Woods all the tools they needed, but something was a missing. The dancers displayed an understanding of the choreography, but lacked control. Yet, Woods finished strong in the final section, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” carrying the character driven choreography with finesse.
DBDT’s Spring Celebration proved that the company is ready to stretch its feet and move forward into the next phrase of its life. With Moore at the helm, it’s sure to be a journey that will be interesting and invigorating to watch.