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Humanity Dancing: The Evolution of Black Dance


by Danielle Georgiou 9 Mar 2009

Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is a Dance Lecturer at the University of Texas at Arlington where she serves as the Assistant Director of the UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble. She is also a member of Muscle Memory Dance Theatre – a modern dance collective. Danielle is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities at […]

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Guest blogger Danielle Marie Georgiou is a Dance Lecturer at the University of Texas at Arlington where she serves as the Assistant Director of the UT Arlington’s Dance Ensemble. She is also a member of Muscle Memory Dance Theatre – a modern dance collective. Danielle is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Arts and Humanities at UT Dallas, and her first book, The Politics of State Public Arts Funding, is out now.

Have you ever wondered what those “crazy” modern dancers are doing on stage? What’s with all the crawling, yelling, killing, crying, gyrating and smiling? Seriously, what are they doing? Well, Dallas natives Gesel Mason (a Booker T. Washington alum) and Cheles Rhynes have the answer for you – the dancers are doing whatever they want! Because in modern dance, there is no right or wrong – just enjoy it.

And enjoy, I did. On Friday, Booker T. Washington hosted Mason/Rhynes Productions’ “No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.” Featuring works by prominent black choreographers, the project (Mason’s baby) intends to challenge the boundaries traditionally placed upon black choreographers – that black dance is “based in the Ailey tradition or Horton technique, as African dance, or as Negro Spirituals.” But as choreographer Bebe Miller said, “It’s so easy to be typed one way or another, but we have moved. And that’s amazing.” Black dance has moved! Encompassed by the social issues of its foundation and imputed with the juiciest moments of life, it speaks to all, no matter race, gender or sex. Moreover, it helps us connect to each other.

That connection was evident the moment the curtain lifted. How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert or: What in the Hell Are They Doing on Stage gave virgins of modern dance a 3-minute crash course in the tradition. This funny and light-hearted parody of Mason’s livelihood seamlessly transitioned to “Bent,” choreographed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (2004).

I have never seen a dancer defy the laws of physics quite like Gesel. From the start, her use of momentum, tempo and space blew me out of my seat. Literally, my body couldn’t help but mimic her brilliant movement. I was surrounded by others just as inspired; we were all swaying and nodding in our seats. An artistically-gestured-wave, if you will. From her performance, to the intention of the piece, to the music, it was chilling. The chills continued as soloist Dawn Robinson (also an alum of Booker T.) performed Emotion, a new work by Nicholas Leichter of New York. She transitioned us from a grounded, earthy movement to a hip-hop vibe that had us all groovin’. And then, the heaviest emotion.

David Roussève’s Jumping the Broom (2005) examined slavery and marriage in the South (Roussève is a native Texan). The work revolved around the narrative of an enslaved man’s secret marriage, and that isolated feeling was portrayed through textual narrative, theatrics and lighting. Mason was trapped in a spotlight upstage right where we see her in a tattered wedding dress, a single wilted rose attached to her breast, and shackles on her feet.

"Jumping the Broom" Photo by: Enoch Chan

“Jumping the Broom” Photo by: Enoch Chan

I have responded to dance emotionally, but I have never cried. I cried that night. Roussève’s integration of controlled movements – isolations, contractions, releases – with narrative and a beautiful piece by Nat King Cole, “If Yesterday Could Only Be Tomorrow,” was designed to evoke the guttural. As Gesel tried to form the words, “I just wanted to love her,” I wanted to embrace her. Only the most calloused of audiences could have watched without feeling the torture. I can scarcely imagine what slaves endured physically, emotionally and psychologically, but we all understand pain and the desire to be treated as equals. And, Jumping the Broom illustrated this commonality. It was beautiful, it was heartbreaking and it was the prefect way to end the first act.

The powerful expressionism continued with Reggie Wilson’s Seeline ‘oman (1992). Wearing a white dress and unlaced black combat boots, Gesel walks, or rather rows, herself across the stage until the movement gradually transitions into heavy Neolithic walk that transform into the upright, held walk of man today. The movement illustrates Wilson’s idea that this is, “a portrait … She is one woman, but she is all of us.” The momentum and articulation build as she strips herself of her constraints – no more boots — and begins to move with wild abandonment. The evolution of movement created by Wilson evokes themes of progress for black dance and the black experience.

Promenade (2005) was the only dance that used a group cast. Choreographed by Robert Battle and featuring students from Booker T. Washington, it was an escapist experience. It was wonderful to see the talent Dallas has in its back yard. These students are amazing. I wish I could move like them! As a dance educator, it was inspiring to see that schools still promote the art of dance and bring innovators into our field. Kudos to you, Booker T. and to your dancers!

The night ended with No Less Black (2000), choreographed and performed by Gesel herself. Set to her own poetry, it brings up questions about Mason’s blackness, and her identification as being “no less black” than others. This piece, simple in its movements, was satisfying. It brought the ideas that Miller mentioned earlier (“It’s so easy to be typed one way or another, but [black dance has] moved”) full circle. It is no longer an ode to Ailey or Negro spirituals; it’s a combination of tradition and progress. It cannot be contained in one typecast; nor can modern dance as a genre, and nor can we as active participants in dance.

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