DCDC’s new vision at 45By Arnecia Patterson
Photo: Dayton Contemporary Dance Company dancers in “Nawa Aba”
Contemporary dance demands a measure of freshness and vitality in its movements and themes. It needs inventiveness at every turn. A narrative that avails itself to storytelling in the choreographer’s head can transmute into originality during craft and result in performance left open to interpretation by viewers. The occasion of 45 seasons finds Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) experienced in the quick evolution of contemporary dance, but, like most middle-agers, it is using the seminal age to construct a new body; a repertory of dances that displays vigor to audiences, dancers and choreographers whose expertise are its lifeblood.
ReVisioning 45: New Works Unveiled is DCDC’s 45th Anniversary program at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 8, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 9, at 3 p.m. and will feature its latest wave of reinvention. As a follow-up to its initial introduction of new works back in October, DCDC will continue to show the fruits of building a fresh dance identity for a vital performance future. A trio of dances by nationally known choreographers Donald Byrd, Ronen Koresh and Ray Mercer will be performed.
The DCDC signature
The identity of a repertory company is hard to build, and even harder to maintain, for critical acclaim and national recognition. DCDC has managed to do both successfully for long stretches of its existence, even though its identity lies in a collection of dances by different choreographers. This is unique among the majority of famous contemporary dance companies, which tend to be known for the work of a single choreographer who uses one group of dancers through which to craft movement. For such companies, identity is easily established because one choreographer is represented by dancers who are chosen for their capacity to work the dominant vocabulary and look good as they perform the finished product. The process creates a following based on a degree of likeness that can link the differences in each dance.
Developing an artistic signature with a repertory of dances by different choreographers takes exacting oversight of a multilayered process that goes beyond the dance studio. Artistic choices have to be made regarding dancers whose abilities lend themselves to different styles and choreographers whose works have value for dancers and audiences. Before the creative process begins, questions loom about which choreographers warrant an invitation to create. Their availability – many of whom are working with their own companies – changes constantly and has to intersect with the time a company allots for creation. After the creative process is finished, how and where the dances will be seen require careful consideration that determines programming, promotions and venue choices. DCDC Artistic Director Debbie Blunden-Diggs is responsible for negotiating this mountain of variables, including choosing the right choreographer at the right time.
“I spend a lot of time looking at who is out there,” said Blunden-Diggs. “The investment in new works has to stand the test of time. I don’t want everyone to be from Donald [Byrd]’s era, but I don’t want everyone to be unknown. It’s an ever-changing market of talent.”
In light of factors beyond her control, which can obscure identity and how to create a future, Blunden-Diggs chooses to forge a profile that blends the company’s historic culture and current presence.
“What each dancer brings today is special,” she said. “The company has a synergy right now that I have not seen in all my years. The synergy between a veteran like Sheri [Williams] and an apprentice from Wright State University working together is remarkable and magical.”
Synergy can serve as both creative shock absorber and launch pad for a new profile. The three works that will be shown in February will probe diverse points of creativity for DCDC’s current dancers to mesh – dancers Blunden-Diggs refers to as “exquisite.” She wants them to use the works, no matter how different, and a synergistic combine with choreographers and each other, to re-establish DCDC’s signature: the impassioned effect it has been known to have on audiences. The company’s profile may gamble on choreographers, but its dancers are counted on to use the collection to create a stroke of electricity throughout the theater.
Accordingly, the work of Choreographer Ronen Koresh is on the February ReVisioning 45 program. Koresh is the artistic director of Koresh Dance Company, based in Philadelphia. It is known for its “highly technical and emotionally charged work” in a city with an active contemporary dance community. For DCDC, Koresh has created a work entitled “Exit No. 7” that is described as an exploration of “the idea art is at least as interior and intuitive as it is demanding in terms of technique.” After Koresh completed “Exit No. 7,” his first piece in DCDC’s repertory, Blunden-Diggs said, “Raw emotion captures Roni’s specific vocabulary. It unfolds well on the dancers. He comes from a strong emotional standpoint.”
A Broadway showman comes to town
Throughout the field of arts and entertainment, the physical toll of performing in a Broadway show is legendary for its eight-performance week. It provides artists with some of the steadiest work in the business, while leaving them very little time for most activities outside of handling life in the city. Ray Mercer – dancer, choreographer and teacher – has endured the costs and reaped the benefits of dancing in “The Lion King” on Broadway since 2005, and for two years on tour, prior.
Despite his schedule, Mercer has choreographed works for companies in different parts of the country and, notably, for the “Gypsy of the Year Competition,” sponsored annually by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. In that forum, he has won Best Onstage Presentation repeatedly.
Mercer’s burgeoning choreographic activity came to Blunden-Diggs’ attention a number of years ago, just not at the right time for the company to provide creative space. Meanwhile, his interest never waned, because he knew of DCDC.
“I have always been familiar with the company because it has been around for a long time, and it has a reputation,” said Mercer.
The right time has resulted in a new addition to the DCDC repertory, “Tossed Around,” for five women and five men, set in three movements to the music of Sean Callery, Paul Hillier and Mikael Karlsson. According to Mercer, the dance he set on DCDC was worth the wait. He put the first movement of “Tossed Around” on his fellow dancers in “The Lion King” and decided to extend its length and vocabulary into a crafted dance of substance for DCDC’s repertory. It is now an intense work that narrates a story of being tossed around physically, emotionally, spiritually and internally. Chairs are used as props to represent stability that is eventually drawn into upheaval and tossed around as well.
“I like a humanistic approach to choreography,” said Mercer, “The chairs represent stability; something that will not move. But sometimes stability is misplaced and moved around as well.”
A native of Omaha, Neb., Mercer has moved to a number of cities – New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit and New York – in order to study, teach and dance. In his childhood, he trained as a gymnast and thought he would become a world-class gymnast, but in his late teens he took his first ballet class. His trained athleticism easily adapted to the physical discipline of dance. Mercer continues to exercise the athletic side of dance in his choreography and joins that to a high quality baseline established by his voluminous access to excellent dance in New York.
“Dancing on Broadway helps me to understand the dancers and movement quality. It keeps me fresh in my vocabulary,” said Mercer.
Reflecting on his visit to Dayton, he looked beyond his affinity for technical proficiency and admired DCDC for an equally revered humanistic quality. “Talent is everywhere. If the place hones and respects the art, beautiful things happen. Dayton Contemporary has done a good job of taking care of dance and respecting the art.”
Return of the standard bearer
From coast to coast, and in in-between cities like Dayton, Donald Byrd has solidified an aesthetic that mines the outer barriers of conventional movements and their spatial relationships. Sometimes, when watching his work, it is hard to discern how a dancer moved from one point to the other or how the movement reshaped the dancer’s body or the landscape where it worked. Even when a change is recognized, the how and why can remain unanswered in one viewing.
Byrd returned to DCDC to choreograph “The Geography of the Cotton Fields” which is, at 40 minutes long, the linchpin of ReVisioning 45 thus far. It joins two more Byrd works already in the DCDC repertory and is connected to two previous installments of this new triad of dances that use geography as a point of investigation: “Euclidean Space” – set on Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater, where he has been artistic director since 2002 – and “Contested Space,” in the repertory of New York’s Dance Theatre of Harlem. He admitted to a recent preoccupation with geography in terms of how ideas contribute to spatial arrangement.
“I was interested in what kind of space would allow shapes to exist,” Byrd explained. “Geography is about space itself – organizing space.”
As a choreographer, Byrd traversed a broad swath of the contemporary dance landscape from 1978, when he was artistic director of Donald Byrd/The Group in New York, until 2002 when he joined Spectrum Dance Theater. That period – plus the decade since – has credited him more than 80 works in a long list of contemporary dance, ballet and opera company repertories, in addition to a Tony Award nomination for “The Color Purple.” When he was in Dayton in August, he noticed characteristics of Dayton’s geography he had not seen on previous visits: an outdoor festival, a coffee culture and a boutique grocery store, so adding culture to the investigation of geography may be Dayton’s unique contribution. Recent visits to Bangladesh and African-American history, both spaces influenced by cotton, are mere starting points in “The Geography of the Cotton Fields.” The choreography is based on an inquiry of space.
“Some of it is influenced by how the body moves in general,” Byrd explained. “How parts of the body move like jookin compared to the big movement that allows the dancers to locomote. The fact the body is made up of a lot of contiguous parts is a large part of the dance.”
In addition to culture and space, Byrd goes back to the music of Amon Tobin, a Brazilian electronic music composer known for his sound manipulations and environments for movies and video games, and adds it as an integral part of the most recent addition to his geography series.
“I want to transport people to an imaginary location of cotton – not one that really exists,” Byrd said. “Even though it’s grounded in destination, it is transformed.”
Philosophically, the overall aim of ReVisioning 45 is coalesced in “The Geography of the Cotton Fields” – both maintain salient pieces of culture while recreating a future filtered through ideas and experiences that are current and useful.
“The rule is the space where we come together is full of everyone’s history and knowledge to be used, but they are filtered through what dancers bring technically and what I bring to the studio,” Byrd said. “I want people to see the difference that is about transformational change – the new way of thinking about modern dance, these dancers and the prospect of different cultural elements on stage.”
Dayton Contemporary Dance Company presents ReVisioning 45: New Works Unveiled at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, and at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. Tickets can be purchased by calling Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or 888.228.3630 or visiting ticketcenterstage.com. For more information on the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, please visit dcdc.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson @DaytonCityPaper.com.