Vincent E. Thomas/VTDance

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Editorial Review

PREVIEW: ‘Shadows’ gets fathers, sons and audiences into the show
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, November 16, 2012

Brian Francoise proudly flies his dude-ness flag.

“I’m a middle-aged dude. I’m not athletic and lithe and flexible. I’m not a trained dancer,” says the adjunct professor at Goucher College in Towson, Md.

Yet this weekend at Dance Place, you can find Francoise, along with his son and two other father-son pairs, onstage with VTDance, a Baltimore-based ensemble founded by dancer-choreo­grapher Vincent E. Thomas.

Francoise and his 8-year-old son, Parker, join 16 other artists, performers and collaborators that Thomas brought together from a variety of fields to perform “Shadows,” a work that explores the essence of being a man in the 21st century.

Thomas, a dance professor at Towson University and an alum of the Dance Exchange under the direction of Liz Lerman, seeks to democratize performing, including trained dancers and novices alike in his pieces. Lerman’s foundational question -- “Who gets to dance?” -- is one Thomas takes to heart when choreographing. “Shadows” features, along with the fathers and sons, D.C. comedian Sampson McCormick, Baltimore storyteller Jon Spelman, four of Thomas’s former students, African djembe drummers David Fakunle and Duane Hinton and former Washington Ballet dancer Runqiao Du.

One of the fathers, animation artist and Towson professor Sujan Shrestha, says he has learned much about himself and fatherhood in the process.

“It’s been an incredibly humbling experience to perform in front of so many people,” Shres­tha says. “As a father, it’s a wonderful thing that my son [5-year-old Neel] and I can share.”

The work also involves the audience. While creating “Shadows,” Thomas convened a series of what he calls “table talks,” exploring such issues as men’s health, sexuality, bullying and fatherhood. During the piece, the onstage action pauses, and such questions as “Was there a time your masculinity was challenged or you challenged someone’s masculinity?” are posed to the audience. Table talk hosts, seated throughout the theater, facilitate brief discussions.

For Thomas, delving into his own relationship with his father was a highly charged and revealing process that made him question his identity as an African American gay man.

Thomas, who didn’t discover dance until college, recalls how he yearned for his father to take an interest in his choral and theater performances. But, he says, “although I did not learn to catch a ball from my father, I did learn character of a human. Sometimes catching a ball does not show that side of a man.”

For “Shadows,” he sought ways to express that experience through movement and by incorporating others’ stories. The participants in the table talks also play trust games, experimenting with balance and counterbalance, lifting and falling, supporting and partnering.

And Thomas watched the fathers and sons connect more intimately as they practiced and became more physically daring.

“All together none of us [fathers] are dancers,” Francoise says. “We learned a gestural language. We are moving in rhythm and in time. We’re connecting with our sons by lifting them; they’re even lifting us. There’s this physical dialogue going on which is gorgeous.”