Archive for November 11th, 2015

At 45, Ailey troupe still young



By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer
Posted on Sat, May. 15, 2004

Last week, the United States Postal Service honored four great American choreographers with stamps of their own: George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. Ailey, who died in 1989 at the age of 58, was the youngest of the honorees.
His now-legendary 45-year-old company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, thrives and balances on the maturity of former star and current artistic director Judith Jamison and the exuberant youthfulness of its spectacularly gifted company of 30. The audience that packed the Academy of Music Thursday night gave the Ailey-ens a roaring, hooting stamp of approval.

Two Philadelphia premieres, Alonzo King’s Heart Song and Robert Battle’s Juba, had the rib-pumping, bravura styles these dancers can deliver. The 2003 Heart Song is King’s second work on the company; audiences may recall his sensational Following the Subtle Current Upstream performed by the company here two years ago.

With its costumes and scenic design by Robert Rosenwasser, Heart Song is an instant classic. Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Asha Thomas twirl out in sculpted, lit-up tutus that say 21st-century ballet and set the scene for solos, duets and large ensemble dancing to come. Among these exceptional dancers, many stand out: Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell for her truncated rapid moves in a duet, Benoit Swan-Pouffer for his high-flying jetes, and Matthew Rushing and Jeffrey Gerodias for their brotherly rivalry in a long, sinuous duet.

Although Juba is the term for a slave dance, Battle’s folk-derived, yet nearly mechanized, steps, Mia McSwain’s blue tunic costumes, and John Mackey’s original, highly varied electronic score suggested a Balkanized world, divided, unified, repartitioned and then optimistically reunified in a triumphant crescendo. Juba, Battle’s first work for the company, offered a wide geographical reach. As if the shape of the world depended on this dance, former Philadanco dancer Hope Boykin, Philadelphia native Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Samuel Deshauteurs and Rushing stretched it to global proportions.

The seamless fluxion in Elisa Monte’s 1979 Treading gave it the feeling of an amniotic float that was also erotic and athletic. Fisher-Harrell’s and Clifton Brown’s virtuosic interpretation of Monte’s dance displayed a slow contrapuntal control against Steve Reich’s pulsing Eighteen Musicians. Like two mighty rivers flowing purposefully to meet at their delta, the dancers ended this masterpiece with Brown carrying Fisher-Harrell aloft, her arms flowing behind her deeply arched back. Sadly, the lighting technician spoiled this gorgeous image by closing the spot too abruptly.

The now permanently endowed 1960 Revelations by the great Ailey closed the program and still revealed its timelessness, spirituality and jubilation. Gerodias’ solo to the hymn “I Wanna Be Ready” fully expressed the human need to reach one’s potential, which is what these dancers do.

Dance Exploding

DanceBoom!’s “African Threads” weaves a stunning tapestry of movement.

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer
Posted Feb. 2, 2009


If Africa is the origin of human life, it is also the origin of language, art, music and dance. As Philadelphia’s most renowned modern and Africanist dance writer and scholar, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, writes in her elegant DanceBoom! catalog essay, “African culture [and its] seeds pervade our daily lives from basketball to ballet and beyond Broadway.

“Africanisms are not a choice,” she writes, “but an imperative that comes to us the way electricity comes through wires.”

With a dozen dance groups, this year’s DanceBoom!, called “African Threads,” at the Wilma Theater offers a stunning array of Africanist-based dance works. There can be no stereotyping of Africanist dance. It is everything from traditional rite-of-passage dances to the celebration of hip-hop, Caribbean, jazz-inflected ballet, and cool tap.

“We looked at all the compass points of where our diaspora resides,” DanceBoom! curator Nick Stuccio said. “Koresh Dance Company is very interesting to us as they are rooted in jazz, but also [choreographer George] Balanchine was such a fan of African dance and first shocked ballet audiences when he introduced bent wrists and thrown-out pelvises like you’ll see in Agon.”

The key word to learn at this festival is polyrhythmic, a term that ties this festival together. The dancers and choreographers throw the word around as easily as they swish their hips while bobbing their shoulders to contrapuntal rhythms. (“The polyrhythmic dancing body may carry one rhythm in the feet plus one or more additional accent patterns in other body parts,” Gottschild writes.)

Audiences can sample from the festival’s following five groupings spread over different nights through Feb. 6.
Rennie Harris Puremovement

Rennie Harris Puremovement will start the festival off on its hip-hop head, hands and feet with a pastiche from the repertoire and add a premiere that Harris says “expresses the souls of inner-city African American and Latino communities.”

Lisanga Ya Bana Kin Philadanco or Odunde Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble Joan Myers Brown, America’s most formidable heroine of African American dance, will have her 35-year-old Philadelphia Dance Company (called Philadanco) perform the riveting trio from Alonzo King’s Steal Away, in which a woman dissolves into despair under the weight of slavery while her two male partners fail to save her.

Philadanco will perform only on Sunday and Tuesday, with Philadelphia’s Odunde appearing on Feb. 4 and 5 to teach audiences social dances of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

Kulu Mele’s steely artistic director, Dorothy Wilkie, is North Philly-born and -reared, and melts into sweet smiles when the dance takes over her body. Her company will present three dances, including a solo called Amazon War Dance by guest artist Djian Tie from the Ivory Coast.

Congolese choreographer Mufulu Kingambo Gilonda, who has been living and working in Philadelphia for 15 years, will perform with his company, Lisanga Ya Bana Kin. They will perform Gizembe, about two regions in the Congo that “have to learn to get along.”
Koresh Dance Company Pennsylvania Ballet Merian Soto

Roni Koresh describes his Negative Spaces as a cabaret.

“It’s all urban jazz-influenced, almost done like a minstrel show, but all the dancers are in white face,” he said. “Once you put on a mask you can do whatever you want.”

George Balanchine made his 1957 masterpiece Agon with an awareness of the era’s racial tensions. He set a major male role on Arthur Mitchell, at the time the New York City Ballet’s only black dancer. Now Meredith Rainey, one of several black dancers in the Pennsylvania Ballet, profoundly inhabits the role he dances with principal ballerina Arantxa Ochoa.
Merian Soto changed her The Art of Improvisation program at the last minute, recycling a title from a show last year, What’s Heart Got to Do With It, a structured improvisation duet for dancer and musician.
Tania Isaac Paule Turner / court Charles Anderson / dance theatre x A phenomenal dancer from St. Lucia, Tania Isaac explores the “cultural schizophrenia” of living in a strange land.

“We jump-cut our lives every day,” Isaac said. “You become adept at shifting from one personality to the other, depending on who you interact with, and that is implicit in my work.”

For DanceBoom! she has streamlined an earlier work, home is where I am… .

In the belief that shock is the best route to awareness, Paule Turner presents the fourth and final section of Touched, the 25-minute “Hitting Bottom,” with his company of six dancing in the nude. Turner has been working with dramaturge and author Don Belton on this explosive multimedia show for more than a year. With the Ku Klux Klan and a beheading in the piece, Turner hopes to show that the world can survive such atrocities.

Charles Anderson is black and gay, and known for big works with magnificent male dancers. Here, however, the cast of Parables of Mutants and Madmen consists of 18 women, with live music.

“Being a member of a historically marginalized group, I’ve always identified with superheroes and their dual identities,” Anderson said.
Germaine Ingram Kariamu & Company Eleone Dance Theatre

DanceBoom! will often move you to tears, but nothing else can make you weep like Nina Simone’s songs. Germaine Ingram, Philly’s top tapper, has refitted three of them for her new show, Nina’s Laments. A jazz quartet interacts with the three women dancers, and Ingram shows segments of her ground-breaking video, Plenty Good Women Dancers: African American Hoofers From Philadelphia.

Kariamu Welsh’s company of seven astonishingly gifted dancers will perform the Jamaican-influenced Sankofa-Ja! and The Museum Piece, a work that harks back to when Sarah Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, was displayed throughout Europe, and arcs through the American objectification of black peoples.

Eleone is a title made up from its founder’s name, the late E. Leon Evans. Its 13 finely tuned dancers will perform a lyrical work by codirector Shawn-Lamere Williams to Bobby McFerrin’s “Sweet as the Morning’s Flow,” innovative choreographer Christopher L. Huggins’ Highway, and The Movement by Wayne St. David.

“African Threads” includes a talk on “The Rise of the Tango” by Robert Farris Thompson, art historian and Yale professor, on Feb. 5 at 10:30 a.m. Odunde, a Philadelphia organization that promotes African culture, will give dancing lessons on Feb. 4 and 5. And a dance photography exhibit called “Roots and Threads” will run from Feb. 3 through April 17 at the Open Lens Gallery at the Gershman Y.

Daily Magazine


Universal African Dance

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer

Posted Jan. 14, 2005

Sochenda means “the traveler” in Dagomba, a language of northern Ghana, and is the title of the featured dance in the 2005 Dance of Our Ancestors Festival presented by Swarthmore College and Temple University.

Choreographer F. Nii Yartey, creator of Sochenda (so-CHEN-da), arrived from Ghana at Philadelphia International Airport last week toting enough titles to wear down any baggage handler. He is artistic director and choreographer of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, a senior research fellow at the University of Ghana, project director of Noyam Contemporary African Dance Research Project, and president of the National Committee of the International Dance Council of UNESCO.

Moreover, when asked what his name means, he said Nii was actually a royal title. “Something like ‘Your Highness,’ ” he admitted with a slight giggle. “I come from a royal family, the Ashantes. Yartey is really my given name.”

This first celebration of African-based dance begins Sunday with a public reception for Yartey. The festival culminates in performances at Temple and Swarthmore, which are cohosting the weeklong sessions of panels, workshops and lectures, all open to the public, on Swarthmore’s campus.

Philadelphia offers a surprising amount of African and Caribbean-based dance. As if to illustrate this, the DanceBoom! festival at Wilma Theater later this month features dance with African flavor by local companies such as headliner Rennie Harris Puremovement.
Yartey is setting his piece on the Temple University-based dance troupe Kariamu & Company: Traditions, under the artistic direction of Temple professor Kariamu Welsh.

She and professor Sharon Friedler, director of dance at Swarthmore College, conceived of the festival. New Yorker Welsh had traveled to Ghana numerous times, starting in 1977. While she was living in Zimbab-we in the early ’80s, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe asked her to work with the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe; she later became the company’s artistic director. “The dancers were all paid by the government,” she said. “Rehearsal space was extremely humble and the performances were often outside.”

Welsh arrived in Philadelphia in 1985 to teach African American studies at Temple, and soon set about to translate African dances to the concert stage without compromising their integrity. She taught the first classes on African dance at Swarthmore in 1988: “My first degree is in literature, but all things African came to me after I was entrenched in dance.”

In 1995, Swarthmore invited professor J.H. Kwabena Nketia to fill an endowed professorship. “Dr. Nketia is considered the foremost ethnomusicologist in Africa,” said Friedler, who has studied African dance since the ’70s, “and he played a very strong role in forming the African wing of our [Swarthmore’s] World Dance Cultures program, inviting me to spend my sabbatical in Ghana in 1997.”

“The people Kariamu and I had contact with in Ghana overlapped,” said Friedler, “and eventually we both met Nii and began to plan these annual festivals. Next year we will have Sir Rex Nettleford, head of the National Dance Theatre of Jamaica.”

Yartey said his soul-searching piece was “inspired by the problems that all of us have as humans. Life is a journey of pain, but there are moments of happiness.”
Ghana Dance Ensemble member Joshua Trebi is guest artist. He will perform a solo in next week’s Friday and Saturday programs at Temple and Swarthmore, which will also include three of Welsh’s own works. During rehearsals, the dancers imitated Trebi’s crouching, hunterlike, “traveling” movements.

When asked if the Americans were meshing African movement with their own previously learned techniques, Yartey said they were doing this very well: “I am measuring them not by the standard that would be used in my village or on my company, but rather I see each body as a sponge that is dipped in a liquid and that liquid is squeezed out by each in his own way.

“My perception of dance is not limited to where I come from,” he continued. “I am a universal African. Any cultural values that are compatible with my own I can use it.”

The performances will be dedicated to the tsunami victims, Yartey said, “because their journey is now in the spiritual world.”


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