Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s Wynton Works at Victoria

DCDC dancer Nile Alicia Ruff; photo: Scott Robbins

By Arnecia Patterson

When the performing arts season opens, it brings with it a degree of anticipation among those who attend events. What classics will be refreshed and reinterpreted? Will there be cutting edge presentations, never-seen-or-heard-before premiers, or those ephemeral moments witnessed in awe? Could an award winning performance find its way to a Dayton stage? In almost a half century of dance the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) checked each box as it built a national reputation for performing mid-century, modern dance classics. Those dances dealt with the issues of their day.

DCDC’s October performances at the Victoria Theatre address two current speaking points: live accompaniment for concert dance and social issues. On Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 7 and Oct. 8, it will present “Wynton Works” a program of three new dances by choreographer Stafford C. Berry, Jr., DCDC associate artistic director, Crystal Michelle, and a program finale by two company dancers, Qarrianne Blayr and Countess V. Winfrey. All three premiers are set to compositions by musical expert, Wynton Marsalis.  Since the 1980s, Marsalis has shown impressive range as a performer and leader. He has nine Grammy Awards for classical and jazz trumpet and a Pulitzer Prize for Music. Currently, he is the managing and artistic director for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis has composed for choreographers Peter Martins of New York City Ballet, Twyla Tharp, and Garth Fagan of the Rochester, NY based Garth Fagan Dance and winner of the Tony Award for “The Lion King” choreography.

With its 49th season opener, DCDC moves its national identity of performing classics into the 21st century with live music and dances that focus on present-day matters. It uses Marsalis’ music as an artistic springboard and opportunity for local sourcing—his music will be played, live, by a trio of musicians led by DCDC music director Deron Bell and the University of Dayton Jazz Ensemble (UDJE) under the direction of Jimmy Leach.

The University of Dayton Jazz Ensemble’s appearance is a return to the DCDC stage—the group, under the direction of Willie Morris, III, collaborated with the company on a past Duke Ellington program. While Morris is on sabbatical, the band is led by Jimmy Leach, a lecturer in UD’s music department and, as chance would have it, a trumpet player. Leach and the ensemble are working on three compositions, “Flee as a Bird to the Mountain,” “Sunday Blessings,” and “Logo Talk,” for a new work by dancers Qarrianne Blayr and Countess V. Winfrey. In addition, the ensemble will perform four more songs by Marsalis, “Sanctified Blues,” “Jump,” “Back to Basics,” and “The Caboose.”

As a leader, Leach embraces the concert dance experience as multi-faceted and formative for the young musicians under his direction. “These compositions by Wynton are pretty new and not in the standard repertoire yet, but they’re very playable,” he said. “Wynton writes music that is idiomatic for the trumpet. It makes the whole group swing.” He acknowledges dance accompaniment’s considerations like flexibility in tempo and reading the dancers along with the musicians and the music. “It will be exciting to see the ebb and flow, the energy and exchange between musicians and dancers,” he said. “If everyone is smiling, that will be good.”

For Crystal Michelle, associate artistic director and frequent choreographer for DCDC, satisfaction comes with self-reflection and space to sort out social issues choreographically. She wants to achieve the layering that she recognizes in Marsalis’ music. “Wynton Marsalis’ music is rich and layered and I think my own work is layered in that it is not about one thing,” she commented. His song, “The Death of Jazz” is her inspiration for a dance entitled “Stump-Speach.”  The misspelling of the title is her creative twisting—the layered effect. “I want people to think, as they watch, that it is political in nature and it is saying something about blackness and politics and black bodies in performance,” she said.

Michelle recalls hearing Wynton Marsalis say that people have been trying to kill jazz since it was born, in reference to “The Death of Jazz.” The result was his 12-minute-long dirge of that name. Its staccato, percussive beginning and mournful unfolding could easily extend to current events for some listeners. It did for Michelle who uses her new dance to reflect on what she calls “physical violences that attempt to erase black people.” She explores persona, like the ones proliferated by historical minstrelsy, and their basis in caricatures drawn with lack of understanding. “In minstrelsy, there is the idea of blackness as puppetry. What does it mean to be released from ideas where people are expecting you to be a certain way?” she posed. “The Death of Jazz” will be played by a trio of jazz musicians directed by Deron Bell.

The third premier on the program is “Double Dutch and Broken Levees” by Stafford C. Berry, Jr. Berry was recently selected the 2017 Duncanson Artist-in-Residence by the Taft Museum of Art and Duncanson Society. He is the second dance artist to be named such in the residency’s 31-year history. About his new work, he said, “In certain economically disadvantaged communities, when storms happen, levees break. It happens as regularly as we see Double Dutch and jump rope and jacks and hula hoops.”

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company will perform “Wynton Works” on Saturday, Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday Oct. 8 at 4 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre in downtown Dayton, OH. Buy tickets at Ticket Center Stage, online at www.TicketCenterStage.com, or by calling 937.228.3630. For more information on the company visit www.DCDC.org.

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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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