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State Of Race

By Lisa Traiger
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 22, 2005

THE IMPRESSIVE Masters of African American Choreography festival at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater -- four different programs run through Monday -- should go a long way toward demonstrating the breadth and range of black American dancemakers. Many of the works on the program -- though not all -- speak to the persecution and resilience of a community oft-oppressed but never beaten. From Dance Theatre of Harlem's sweeping "South African Suite," which will be danced Friday; to Rennie Harris Puremovement's tour de force solo, "Endangered Species" (Saturday); to Dianne McIntyre's "Invincible Flower," a collaboration with jazz avant-gardist Lester Bowie (Sunday), the dances physicalize both the struggles and triumphs of African American culture.

"These works reflect the hyphenated heritage of African Americans," explained dance critic and historian Zita Allen, who has been both a speaker and panel moderator at the festival. "They really delve into the heart and soul of the people who are choreographing them and the community that they come from.

At bottom, she says, "is this desire [for African American choreographers] to express themselves freely and break beyond the constraints of the systems that existed before them." The result: works of universal importance that nevertheless resonate as distinctively American.

By the time the festival closes with the iconically stirring "Revelations," Alvin Ailey's anthemic paean to African American spirituality, the Kennedy Center will have hosted, in a week's time, 17 companies performing 22 complete works or excerpts. In addition to a phalanx of many of the best dancers in the country -- including some from Dance Theatre of Harlem, Garth Fagan Dance, Philadanco and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater -- dance luminaries Judith Jamison and Carmen DeLavallade will be on hand. Jamison, a former dance star and now Ailey artistic director, and DeLavallade, one of Ailey's first dancers in the early 1960s, will introduce and host each program.

While the Kennedy Center has presented many of these companies individually in the past, never has such an illustrious cavalcade descended on its stage at the same time. And that's exactly the point.

"This will be the largest and most comprehensive contemporary dance festival the Kennedy Center will have ever done," says Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center's vice president for dance and international programming, as well as the festival's curator. "It's an opportunity to bring these artists together in a way that will showcase the best of what has been produced by some of America's finest choreographers . . . and show many of the stories that they have chosen to tell." In programming the festival, Adams sought a diversity of works that speak of shared values, shared traditions and common themes foretold in the African American cultural experience. There are dances deeply rooted in African culture, dances of protest and dances of praise, not to mention explorations of musical influences from jazz to blues to hip-hop.

"This program shows the remarkable connectedness of all these generations to one another and to the culture that every one of them comes from," notes Allen, who in 1973 became the first African American critic at Dance magazine. She hails the variety of choreographers' works represented -- from matriarchs Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus to established groundbreakers Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty and Arthur Mitchell, to contemporary innovators such as Bill T. Jones and Bebe Miller, to Young Turks like hip-hop tapper Tamango and the street-smart Harris.

And the luster of the Kennedy Center's national stature, too, makes this week unique. "I'm trying to remember the last time this kind of dance event has happened on a major stage in America," Adams said, "and I think it's been at least 20 or 25 years now."

For Allen, "This festival shines a light on an area of dance that has not gotten the consistent attention that it deserves. . . . The impact that these choreographers have had on the art form is phenomenal."

MASTERS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CHOREOGRAPHY -- Friday, Saturday and Monday at 8, and Sunday at 3. Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. 202-467-4600.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company