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At Kennedy Center, A Moving Tribute to Black Choreography

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005

Opening night of the Kennedy Center's "Masters of African American Choreography" tribute Wednesday had the feel of a long-awaited reunion, one that brought younger generations together with the elders whose trailblazing had made their moments in the spotlight possible. And all were united in honoring the memory of beloved ancestors.

It was an unprecedented event, with six works by as many African American choreographers, springing from African, Brazilian, Caribbean and mainstream American modern-dance traditions. In the works by Chuck Davis, Katherine Dunham, Jawole Willa Jo Zolar, Asadata Dafora and Geoffrey Holder, one experienced the enduring vitality of African dance as it has spread through the diaspora. In contrast, Bill T. Jones's work existed in an abstract, expressive world of his own brilliant devising.

The dancing was by turns high-spirited and contemplative, and especially among the more energetic works, the enthusiasm was palpable. Not all the works were well served by the program lineup, however, nor was there a consistency of skill among the performers.

This was the undeniable drawback of the evening, though it may seem curmudgeonly to point out flaws in what certainly was a labor of, if not love, then unusually deep motivation among the organizers and participants.

In remarks to the audience midway through the evening, Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser called the festival, which continues through Monday night, the "most important modern-dance project in the history of the Kennedy Center." This is an arguable point, as it overlooked previous endeavors of interest, such as commissioning projects and long-term surveys.

One can forgive Kaiser his exuberance, however. This celebration is unquestionably the most important modern-dance project of his four-year tenure at the center, growing out of his involvement in the black dance community. Along the lines of the International Ballet Festival he dreamed up two years ago, Kaiser set out to bring substantial number of dance companies -- predominantly black dance companies to boot -- together for five nights of performances.

The logistics of such an undertaking are staggering: getting dancers from 17 troupes to be on the same stage within the same week, fitting together works of enormous variety. But if this first program's choreographic offerings were not evenly matched, the presence of so many of the respected elders of modern dance still made a terrific impression. Following his remarks, Kaiser introduced more than two dozen black choreographers and dance company directors, many of whom will be represented by their works and their dancers throughout this week's tribute. Among those assembled were Arthur Mitchell, artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem; Judith Jamison, artistic director of the Ailey company; and figures who have moved between dance and theater, such as Carmen de Lavallade, George Faison and Debbie Allen.

Jamison and de Lavallade served as hosts for the evening, addressing the audience after Davis's opening piece. De Lavallade made the essential point that African American dance "is now woven into the fabric of dance in America."

The performances offered a look at how the African American tradition has become so much a part of the nation's dance. Works such as Holder's "Dougla" (1974), based on Trinidadian nuptials, and the venerable Dunham's Brazilian-inspired "Choros" (1944) demonstrated the merger of ethnic ritual and Western dance. The appeal of both works ("Dougla" was performed by Dance Theatre of Harlem; "Choros" by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble) centered on assertive, insistent rhythms and vibrant costumes.

Dressed only in a few strategically placed feathers, Koffi Koko used his sculpted physique to underscore the warrior aspect in Dafora's "Awassa Astrige/Ostrich," a minor gem of movement economy and pointed drama by the Sierra Leone native who danced to acclaim in New York in the 1930s.

In Davis's "Fanga," drawn from a Liberian dance of welcome, the dancers strutted down the aisles chanting, and joined drummers onstage. Yet this presentation, which would undoubtedly feel uplifting in a more casual festival environment, felt awkwardly repetitive on the concert stage.

It was Zollar's excerpt from "Walking With Pearl -- Africa Diaries" and Jones's "MERCY 10x8 on a CIRCLE" that were truly masterly. Zollar's Urban Bush Women possess a gorgeous movement quality, soft yet grounded, as if they are moving through clear, still water. Her piece pays tribute to Pearl Primus, a pioneering anthropologist-choreographer who collected primitive dance traditions from many lands. As Zollar read from Primus's inspirational writings, one dancer watched the others with rapt attention, finally joining the group for a simple and reverent tribute to an African sunset, as high, tinkling strings fluttered like rainfall.

Jones's work joined seeming incongruities into a thrilling whole. There was eye-catching decor: a flat gray backdrop and a steady trickle of red and black confetti falling to the center of the stage. There was Beethoven's lovely "32 Variations on an Original Theme in C Minor." And there was the dancing -- virtuosic and clean, all springy jumps and sharp lines and arresting still lifes. And punctuated by touches of astonishing stylized violence. It was a work of intrigue and beauty, a meditation on couples and love and dangerous attraction, and it pulled one into a world that seemed at once mysterious, unsettling and familiar.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company