An Evening of New Dance
The work here, while not so new, showed that area black dance is living and diverse
Reviewed by Jonelle Wilkinson Seitz, Fri., Oct. 17, 2008
An Evening of New Dance
The title of the Black Arts Movement Festival's mixed-dance program, An Evening of New Dance, was perhaps overly ambitious. While none of the pieces shown represented real conceptual ingenuity, the evening nevertheless provided a welcome opportunity to view three companies in various styles that contribute to Austin's dance scene.
This year, the festival focused on close-to-home talent by soliciting work from brand-new Austin-based troupe Ballet Afrique and the 30-year-old Dallas Black Dance Theatre, as well as Wideman/Davis Dance (based in New York but frequently seen in Austin). The Wideman/Davis company had the middle spot on the program and showed the most technically secure and mature work in pieces by co-choreographers and dancers Thaddeus Davis and Tanya Wideman-Davis. A love-hate duet to songs by Etta James and James Brown, "James and Etta," was a crowd-pleaser that also had enough choreographic freshness – and its dancers enough technical prowess – to please serious dance-goers.
The set for the piece, two gray chairs and a table, along with business-casual costumes, suggested an office romance. While the characters may indeed have been cubicle mates, the work's emotional range and organic yet unpredictable partnering sections rendered it intellectual, fun, and easy on the eyes all at once. The husband-and-wife team's comic streak was well utilized in a solo for Wideman-Davis in which she seemed to have an imagined conversation with her partner, giving his apparition a fierce bite and then a loving smooch.
Ballet Afrique's sampler of four dances, titled An Afro Cubano Retrospective, was listed at the end of the printed program but, in fact, opened the show. The first and last sections showed two and three women in mostly synchronous movement that seemed an unsure combination of ballet, modern, and African dance. In a solo section, however, China Smith-Lott used subtle footwork and her beaming smile to make the intricate drumbeats that accompanied her sound warm and feminine. Derrick Washington, omitted from the printed program, contributed a tightly wound solo in which he manipulated the flags of several nations, seeming to explore belonging and fidelity.
Last onstage was Dallas Black Dance Theatre's Pulse, a 2007 work by Ray Mercer (the dancer/choreographer, not the boxer). The piece used an eclectic score and text to circularly explore conflicting ideas of "man" and relationships, and the four men (Chivas Merchant-Buckman, Richard A. Freeman Jr., Zach Law Ingram, and Kevin E. Jackson) were technically strong and well rehearsed. When they moved in unison to a booming heartbeat track, they did it with feeling. Women joined them in various groupings, and some interesting gestures, including a nose-wipe wave of dismissal ("Screw you, what I really need is a tissue"?) and an ass grab, punctuated the ballet- and jazz-based steps. The music moved toward nightclub pace near the end, before the women left the men alone onstage once again.
Despite the lack of "new," the program showed that area black dance – and that means a major part of American dance – is living and diverse. Festival Director Lisa Byrd said this year's festival responded to a demand for more dance by giving the lineup two dance programs instead of one (the other program, No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers, was shown on Oct. 8). Perhaps next year's festival could allow even more time for dance, encouraging more risk-taking and innovation.