Dance

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s Vantage Points at the Victoria

By Arnecia Patterson

Photo: DCDC’s Devin Baker surrounded in Stafford Berry’s Wawa Aba, to be in Vantage Points at the Victoria Theatre; photo: Scott Robbins

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s annual performance foray to the historic Victoria Theatre Saturday and Sunday, March 4-5, is old and new. In the 1990s, the company performed there three times a year. Since then, it has performed at various theatres and auditoriums in the city. The repertory that comprises its upcoming program, Vantage Points: A Read between the Lines, belongs in the historic theatre where the company makes its home.

The program’s choreography by three African-American men spans nearly 60 years. It presents a masterpiece, Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, choreographed by Donald McKayle in 1959, an image of convict labor crafted into award-winning choreography that is still relevant; a world premiere by New York-based dancer and choreographer Ray Mercer, perhaps best known for his work on Broadway’s The Lion King; and a reprisal of Wawa Aba, choreographed by Stafford C. Berry, Jr., an assistant professor of dance at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. Collectively, the works provide a vantage point of perseverance and transformation.

Singularly, however, Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder is a watershed in the American modern dance continuum. It punctuates classical dance storytelling and modern abstract movement into a visually arresting piece of dance history. While Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder’s story is complex, its movement is simple, and its impact is transformative.

DCDC acquired McKayle’s seminal dance through the American Dance Festival, one of the country’s most prolific spaces for modern dance. When ADF embarked on a program to reconstruct classic, modern dances by African-American choreographers, DCDC emerged as the preponderantly chosen company by choreographers whose works were earmarked. DCDC has performed Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder on stages around the world to critical acclaim. The most recent performance received a Bessie (N.Y. Dance and Performance Award) for “Outstanding Revived Work” in 2016, following an appearance on the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s season at New York City’s David H. Koch Theater—the 2,586 seat home of New York City Ballet. Bessie awards recognize exceptional dance and dance related performance and design, in New York.

DCDC’s recent commendation bookends its initial performance of Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder 30 years ago in 1987.  The work remains fresh and vibrant, based, in part, on the coaching of Dawn Carter (née Wood), who danced with DCDC from 1972-96 and shared the female role with Sheri Williams as an original cast member of the company’s award-winning version. Unlike a répétiteur, Carter comes in to coach the dance after the choreography has been set. She perfects its nuances and gives it a breath of authenticity by imparting what she learned as a young dancer from McKayle himself.

Carter recalls the significance of DCDC acquiring a dance that, at the time, was being danced by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which boasts the largest dance audience in the world:

“We were at the point where people were recognizing us and respecting our work. We were getting somewhere, not just spinning our wheels. The work was really paying off.”

As Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder is being prepared for Dayton’s Victoria Theatre, Carter is joined by Gary Harris, who danced with DCDC from 1991-2012. Those years were his first exposure to classic modern dances by African-American choreographers. As a native of Queens, New York, just a train ride away from every venue in the U.S. capital of dance, Harris saw plenty of classical ballet, contemporary, and avant-garde dances. Eventually, he left New York and graduated from The Ohio State University’s dance department where European classics were at the forefront.

“At university I kept hearing about DCDC, so by the time I graduated I knew that Ailey and DCDC were the only two companies for me,” Harris says. “Jeraldyne [Blunden, DCDC’s founder] took a chance on me, and I have loved it ever since.”

Prior to video, hologram, and GIF, Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder was crafted as a poetic treatment of male oppression as it fixated on a female vision of freedom. Its purity is in how the movement represents the idea. That takes more than a simple dance technique or a conglomerate; it takes the ability to identify the kinesthetic tension between literal and figurative, curved and linear, and heed the expertise in the dance’s seam construction.

For Carter and Harris, one of their process goals is to represent the choreographer’s vision for the dance, its depiction of a singular female among an ensemble of shackled men. The chained line of convict laborers is the trope that defines the dance’s context. Both Carter and Harris have worked directly with McKayle, whose choreographic career includes theatre, film, and concert dance vehicles prior to retiring from University of California, Irvine, as a dance professor. They acutely understand how the dance’s simplicity heightens its energy. When asked if they are coaching to perfection, they alluded to authenticity—how Mr. McKayle’s vantage point informed these roles when they danced them and continues to persist as they coach them.

Those roles are formed from different perspectives choreographed into one. Seven men on a chain gang dream of a former life—and a woman, comforter/protector/love, who provides respite from days, months, or years of lock-step, rock-pounding punishment. Neither Carter nor Harris has ever seen a chain gang, yet each recognized the dance as such.

“I recognized it as a chain gang mainly because of the men’s entrance,” Carter says, referring to the rhythmic step-slap-close, hand-held entrance of bare chested men in a straight line, stomped laterally between the beats of the classic work song that bears the same name. As its vocals wail plaintively, the men enter in unison. It is not hard to imagine convicts disembarking from windowless vans under the watchful eyes of an overseer.

Harris points out how the movement’s intention is explicit, especially from a mid-century, modern dance choreographer like McKayle. It is not found-movement that occurs by chance; it is modern ideas being crafted, not steps being done.

“He explained every part of the ballet. With those classic choreographers, every movement has a significant meaning,” Harris recalls. Furthermore, he remembers the physical toll the work took on the male dancers, including himself, “Right away, I understood how it was on a chain gang. If you’re not in time, someone can get killed. You’re going to drag that person and make it harder on you.”

Today, even though chain gangs are no longer used by corrections, the story is acculturating for its dancers. It has the power to remind them of oppression in the myriad forms that exist today.

The womanly transfix

The single woman in Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder poses a dream of freedom in an oppressed man’s imagination. However, Carter points out that the female figure has her own imagined yearnings of freedom for her oppressed loved one. McKayle constructed one variation and three duets that subtly imply her and her man’s concurrent dreams. Her appearances mark memories. In that place, when the woman enters to dance, modern movement and classical narrative construct the shape, direction, organization, and transitions in the dance, making it revolutionary in 1959 and timeless in 2017. According to Carter, “In her first appearance, she’s moving as if she’s getting dressed. There is a point where she imagines his shape and envisions when he was there. He is thinking of her, but she’s thinking of him at the same time.”

The knowledge of her story shapes the physical approach. “The imagery helped me to do the movement. It was how I knew where to apply weight. As a woman and a dancer, she definitely has her story to tell,” Carter says.

The female’s lyrical show of loss softens the stark rhythms and precise, geometric lines of the men’s movement. In the duets, a man leaves the chain gang and gives in to prescient figment. They dance with familiarity and share a longing that poses challenges in their minds as well as in the dance. In moving the story forward, the woman’s presence requires seamlessly crafted transitions—as the men continue on the chain gang while only one succumbs to his imagination.

Coming in and out of the line must be physically mediated in order for the unison to remain constant. With each transition, blending in and out of the ensemble occurs, and McKayle has choreographed a simplicity that needs to be maintained for the dance to have the intended impact.

“The simplicity of being together makes the dance even more profound and powerful,” Harris says. “We give up our egos as dancers and come to a place where we understand that the choreographer has done the work. In that place, the beauty of the piece comes out even more.”

The color of hope

The voice of a working convict is rarely, if ever, sounded from a platform of beauty in a theatrical setting. According to McKayle, Carter, and Harris, when the heat of oppression is refined to unison movement and rhythmic simplicity, and interspersed with a womanly song, the audience empathizes with the oppressed. The multi-colored, glinting arcs of sledge hammers and pick-axes pierce the air, striking a solid obstruction that blocks unification. The vantage points of three African-American choreographers give the audience a clear view of our shared history from the mid-20th century until now.

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company presents Vantage Points at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 4 and at 4 p.m. Sunday, March 5 at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. in downtown Dayton. DCDC will also announce its next season. Tickets range from $24.50-$47. For tickets, please visit TicketCenterStage.com or call the box office at 937.228.3630. For more information, please visit 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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