Bespoke dance

Gesturing to the griot in Body Talk

By Arnecia Patterson

Photo: Sheri ‘Sparkle’ Williams translates the words of playwrights to dance; photo: Mike Claire

In the concert world, when dance represents current movement, ideas, music, and people, it is often called “contemporary”; onstage, it animates the reality of our immediate world—abstract or literal. Dance can look back and remember, too. Dancers and choreographers are asked all of the time, “What does that mean… What is that?” When pressed, even pop-culture dancers, whose stages—impromptu street jams, festivals, abandoned places—are as transitory as their movement, talk about their memories of the past.

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company has as much experience as any dance company in the country performing contemporary dances that reflect distinct cultural periods. In 1991, it began to amass works by African-American choreographers so significant their reconstruction was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities as “The Black Tradition in American Dance,” a project conceived and driven by the world -renowned American Dance Festival. DCDC performed those dances on stages all over the world. Dances with a griot quality depicting snatches of deep, southern, and migrant, urban American life; the early, ubiquitous, presence of African culture in America.

When DCDC opens its 48th season, it will proffer a version of the griot that emerges from the words and images of African-American writers, specifically their plays. The company premiers an evening-length work, Body Talk, co-choreographed by Debbie Blunden-Diggs, artistic director, and Crystal Michelle, associate artistic director. Their choreography will use music and scenes to form a narrative propelled by the griot character. In West African traditions, a griot is an oral documentarian who passes down stories and makes music received from ancestral telling, as well as creates new stories to keep a culture alive. Body Talk puts movement to the tradition of the griot as a narrator of thematic scenes from plays by James Baldwin, Ntozake Shange, and August Wilson. It will be performed in the Mathile Theatre of the Schuster Performing Arts Center, Saturday, Oct. 15, and Sunday, Oct. 16. The Deron Bell Band will provide live music at intervals throughout, a complimentary dessert and coffee, plus a talkback with choreographers follow the performance.

While the playwright’s work is driven by scenes, choreographers Blunden-Diggs and Michelle are organizing Body Talk by the themes that connect them. Compare it to a story cycle in which short segments, when read as a whole, read differently than if they were read individually. So, the griot figure is cast as a character in the dance. According to Michelle, “The character is needed to push and pull the sections together, especially because of the thematic organization within the structure of the overall evening.”  She gives an example of a segment entitled “The Amen Corner,” after James Baldwin’s play of the same name. In it, the griot takes on the role of sermon-making storyteller to connect different scenes about religion or spirituality.

Envisioning words as movement is what choreographers do; however, that could also apply to ideas, music, stories, or memories. Michelle has read the play’s images as movement. “In theatre, it’s the voice or the poetry of language that bears the weight of theatrical flow,” she explains. “To look at the work of playwrights through dance centralizes the body as the language-bearer in the work.” As a self-described “gestural choreographer,” she believes gesture is a “full-bodied” undertaking. The wave of a finger or hand, how a head is turned, a foot pointed and stretched are simple starting points. From those points the body (emotions, another way of being in the body) has to support the gesture and emanate a larger intent in order to tell the story. The audience can expect to see her gestural impetus, supported by balletic legs and African looseness in the arms and torsos, collaborated with Blunden-Diggs’s classic modern and jazz choreographic style to replace the award-winning words of some of America’s most revered writers. “Body Talk will play with different ideas at different times. Sometimes, we will try to illustrate exactly what we think the writer is saying, and other times, the movement will call the lesson into question,” Michelle says. Like the griot, the choreographers will mix smaller pieces, trios and solos, with groups that form community. In the Schuster’s Mathile Theatre, DCDC Marketing Director Jay Peterson says DCDC takes full advantage of the intimate black box space, seating 150 people on three sides of the stage, with engagement and interaction. The audience gets as many ways of seeing as there are ways of being.

Body Talk premiers at 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, and 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16, in the Mathile Theatre at the Schuster Center, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets for Saturday’s 7 p.m. showing are sold out. Complimentary dessert and coffee, plus a talkback with choreographers follow the performance. To buy tickets or for more information, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit DCDC.org. 

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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Arnecia Patterson
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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