Portland is a trendy small city that prides itself on it's diversity. But the State of Maine still ranks as the number one whitest state in the United States. Saturday night, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) performed a program that could have been considered a 101 primer on what's important in the world of African American Dance. Right On! DCDC follows in the same vein as Alvin Ailey, Ron K. Brown and the Urban Bush Women, companies who dare to look at black history and say what can we learn from it all.
Slavery, chain gangs, spirituality and devotion were featured in four dances performed by this skilled company. The fourteen dancers were standout beautiful in both how they accomplished the technical moves as well as their interpretation of some very heavy emotional themes. The dancing was strong, precise, and yet layered with fluidity. And there was no overacting which was a welcome relief. It is all too easy to overdo the emotions to make your point, and this company struck the right balance.
Beginning the program was J Lawrence Paint (Harriet Tubman Remix) choreographed by Donald Byrd. The dance began by creating a series of "snapshots" depicting people on the move that were looking over their shoulders. And while 12 of the dancers wore contemporary costumes, a solo figure was dressed in a period outfit of a white headscarf and long dress with apron. Dancer Sheri Sparkle Williams represented abolitionist and underground railroad activist Harriet Tubman. Williams commanded our attention as she stood up and pointed her shaking arm in the direction that lead to freedom. The dance had several sections that depicted the many aspects of slavery life from childs play, work, and lynching.
Looking at religion from two different points of view were Vespers and Children of the Passage. Choreographer Ulysses Dove created Vespers in 1986. The dance featured 6 women in black dresses who were caught up in a maniacal pursuit of prayer and devotion. They sat and prayed, and then moved as if searching in vain to find something. This very somber look at passion was approached with sterility and the chastity was enhanced by the relentless drumming music of Mikel Rouse. And from Co-choreographers Donald McKayle and Ron K. Brown their 1999 Children of the Passage looked at what happens to lost souls who are saved by the "spirits". This dance was raucous with the jazzy steaming sounds of the New Orlreans Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The costumes were a gorgeously strange take on Victorian gala wear designed by Omatayo W. Olaiya. Outstanding as the lead lost soul was G.D. Harris, although every dancer in this company is virtuosic.
The highlight of the evening was Donald McKayle's 1959 Rainbow 'Round My Shoulders. 6 men on a chain gang entered the stage moving in unison steps that wrenched their bare torsos from side to front and down. There was such a heaviness and power to each thrust of their arms as they reached overhead and then crashed down. The men continued to move as one as we realized they are doomed to an never-ending cycle of work. Within the dance several woman appear as muses or dreams taking on the role of mother, wife, and sweetheart. The dance ended with one of the men being shot as he tried to escape from the gang. McKayle's dance is timeless, and it didn't seem dated.
Regional dance companies like DCDC are a joy to watch as they remind us that dance is happening throughout the entire United States. These Dancers in Ohio are just as serious, as peers in bigger metropolitan areas, in presenting quality performances.
Dayton Contemporary Dance Company - Saturday March 20, 2010 at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine