DCDC kicks off its fiftieth anniversary season

Urban Milonga, (L-R): Sheri “Sparkle” Williams, Nabachwa Ssensalo-Harris,
Alexis Britford-Suggs, LaMoi Hedrington, Dorse Brown and (back) DeMarcus Akeem Suggs perform Alvin Rangel’s work “Urban Milonga,” Photo: Scott Robins

By Arnecia Patterson

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s single evening performance at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 24 will be a rare, mid-winter treat; a display of the artistry the company has mastered and made its brand over a half century. Yes, DCDC is fifty years old.

Aptly entitled Reunited, the performance will excerpt seven dances spanning the company’s storied history and subsequent launch into the embrace of the dance world. It will shepherd audiences through DCDC’s repertory via one of the most comprehensive volumes of modern dance to ever take any stage in one performance. In addition to excerpts of the repertory, three dances will be performed in their entireties—“This I know for Sure…” (2017) by Ray Mercer,  “Beyond a Cliff: A Tribute to Jeraldyne Blunden” (1991) by former dancer Dwight Rhoden who currently directs the New York-based dance company, Complexions, with Desmond Richardson, and “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich” (1932) choreographed by Asadata Dafora and danced by G.D. Harris. “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich” was Harris’ solo when the company acquired it in 1997 through 2012, his last performance.

Over the apex of its half-century, DCDC captured demand when the dance world took notice of Jeraldyne Blunden as an acute curator of quality dance. Because she had sustained a stable group of well-trained dancers, she attracted choreographers from larger cities with New York credentials. Blunden saw beyond the provincial confines of producing modern dance in Dayton, Ohio. Her vision foreran today’s use of “creatives” as a population. As early as the 1970s, she envisioned the presence of a broadly talented expanse of choreographers and dancers, technicians and craftspeople living locally, yet with celebrated places in the larger world of dance. In the early years, Blunden encouraged local dancers to spend summers in New York studying at the Ailey School and recognizing their potential in a grander scheme. By 1988, when DCDC was chosen to acquire three of the six reconstructions of modern dance masterworks through the American Dance Festival’s first season of The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance, the company was primed for the worldwide demand in store. National and European tours ensued over the next decade as the repertory grew and world-renowned artists sought to work at DCDC.

G.D. Harris is one of the artists who found a home in Dayton during his twenty-year career with DCDC. A native New Yorker from Queens, he came to the company from The Ohio State University after he earned his BFA, cum laude. Harris has been away from full-time dance for over five years, yet his affinity for Blunden and DCDC made him commit to the Reunited concert. According to Harris, subjecting himself to the strenuousness required to dance “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich” is a nod to the founder’s legacy. “She hired an unknown dancer straight out of college and took a chance on me. Fifty years is a legacy. I gave half of my life to dance in a company that fulfilled me on and offstage,” said Harris.

Noted for his long limbs and immediately perfect, symmetrical lines, Harris’ portrayal of the ostrich balances dance and bird to forefront the “character.” The solo is three minutes long. It appears simple: a singular dancer and spare duet of melodic flute and quietly pulsating drum; the lighting is low with no set. The accompaniment’s aural simplicity is actually a poly-rhythmic duet and poses one of the dance’s biggest technical challenges. In order to be convincing as an ostrich, Harris has to maintain extended, fluid arms emanating from isolations in the back that work through the shoulders, arms, and into the hands. The hypnotic arm movement and full chest, as Harris enters the dimly lit stage, is poised strength and control. The onlooker waits in anticipation as if encountering a creature in its habitat. “I don’t think of the comical portrayal of the timid bird with its head in the sand,” Harris recounted. “I take a big, proud bird approach. It doesn’t back down. It’s loyal and large.”

The regal solo, “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich,” was choreographed in 1932 by Asadata Dafora, a native of Sierra Leone who, after studying voice in Europe, immigrated to New York in 1929 and started a theatre and dance group with African men living in Harlem. It is just one of an impressively long list of modern dances that constitutes the 20th century American dance canon—a large preponderance of it housed in the bodies and minds of DCDC dancers now living all over the world. As they reunite to awaken the seminal dance memories in their bodies and spirits, artistic director Debbie Blunden-Diggs thinks of the company’s trajectory. “DCDC will remain a place that presents and collects work by people who are now considered masters,” she projected. “Artists who make challenging dances that fulfill the emotion and energy of this company.”

Catch Reunited Saturday, Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St., Dayton. Tickets start at $24.50. To kick off the celebration as DCDC turns 50, the company will host The Gathering: A DCDC Family Reunion. Mingle with dancers, choreographers, teachers and patrons, old and new, Friday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. at DCDC Studios, located at 840 Germantown Street in Dayton. Tickets for Reunited and The Gathering are available at TicketCenterStage.com or by calling 937.228.3630.

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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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