FROM AFRICA TO AVANT-GARDE.
Free to Dance, produced by Thirteen/WNET's Dance in America, is a three-hour, self-titled "evening-long performance documentary" tracing the African influence on modern dance. Extraordinary historical footage, signature performances, interviews with critics, historians, and artists, and a historical dramatization should keep viewers glued to the screen. Dance in America has produced many programs that featured prominent artists of the African American tradition--Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, Garth Fagan, and Bill T. Jones, among others. Here, their contributions are woven with those of other seminal figures, and contextualized to offer a more comprehensive tale.
The program is divided into three segments. In the first, dance historian Katrina Hazzard-Donald explains that African people meeting a stranger might ask, "What do you dance?" well before posing questions about heritage, citizenship, or vocation. She makes the point that for Africans, dance is a vital part of one's identity. When Africans were brought to America as slaves, dance created community. The ring shout and early tap performances (among other examples of early African American dance in fields, streets, and ballrooms) point to the immediate cross-pollination with European forms.
The segment recounts, rather speedily, the history of African American dance in the beginning of the twentieth century, before making an awkward transition from a documentary to a dramatization of the relationship between Edna Guy, a young black dancer, and Ruth St. Denis. These scenes are less effective than their revealing letters. Guy is determined to become an artist. Although she excels in her studies with St. Denis and acts as her wardrobe assistant, she is never invited to join the company. African Americans had to forge their own paths to the concert stage and Guy ultimately did.
The second part of the program, "Steps of Gods," continues the history of Katherine Dunham's research in the Caribbean. One of her dancers remembers that after Dunham returned to the United States in 1936, she taught a whole new movement vocabulary. "She told us we were learning the `steps of the gods,'" says Carmencita Romero. Dunham and African choreographer Asadata Dafora reacquaint black dancers of the 1930s with their African dance heritage. But it is Dunham who develops a training technique that incorporates the principal of isolation--each part moving separately as if it had no connection to other parts. Supported by footage of contemporary Dunham classes, this discussion is a vital part of the program.
There is excellent film footage of Pearl Primus doing research in Africa. The creative spirits of Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, and Alvin Ailey are substantiated by strong examples from their work. Jerome Stiller's performance of Beatty's Mourner's Bench is spliced with gorgeous footage of Beatty performing the same solo at what looks like Jacob's Pillow. Alvin Alley dancing "Wade in the Water" from an early performance of Revelations evokes wonder and admiration--and deep, deep sorrow for his absence. Ailey's company provided black dancers with performance opportunities from the '50s onward, just as Dunham's company gave black dancers performance opportunities from the '30s to the '50s.
The final segment, "Go for What You Know," takes its title from the advice Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's mother gave her whenever she prepared to go onstage. From the '60s to the present, the final part reveals what contemporary artists know about themselves, their communities, their music, and their traditions. There is footage of Eleo Pomare's Blues for the Jungle, a harsh depiction of social ills that plagued the '60s urban ghettos; Zollar's Batty Moves, a '90s celebration of a woman's body; and Blondell Cummings's probing '80s solo, Chicken Soup, with its Everywoman in the kitchen.
Some artists, like Gus Solomons jr, embrace the larger artistic world of postmodernism. One wonders exactly why Bill T. Jones refers to being "enamored by the myth of the avant-garde," when '60s experimentation clearly has influenced his work. Fagan is more forthcoming. "I didn't understand it when I was young," he says, "but I came to appreciate and respect it." Clearly, black dance is not one but many things. The segment ends in the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company studios, where McKayle is collaborating with Ronald K. Brown on Children of the Passage. Says Brown, "My voice is new, but it has a strong connection to what went before."
There will inevitably be criticisms that Free to Dance has omitted important figures, including Dayton Contemporary Dance Company founder Jeraldyne Blunden and Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown. On the other hand, there is a surplus of historians and cultural critics. Too many authorities speaking out of context fractures rather than enhances the narrative. Ultimately, it is through the artists, their work, and their words that we absorb the African American tradition in modern dance.
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|Title Annotation:||influences on American dance|
|Author:||THOM, ROSE ANNE|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2001|
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