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African American Masters, Legging It to the Past and Back

By Clare Croft
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 25, 2005

A celebration of African American choreography applauds differences as much as similarities. Friday and Saturday's installments of the Kennedy Center's "Masters of African American Choreography" series displayed the breadth of African Americans' artistic contributions to dance. Whereas Wednesday's opening-night performance looked primarily at the early 20th century, Friday focused on pieces from the second half of the century that were touched with political overtones. Saturday looked to the current generation of choreographers, riffing on their artistic ancestors' work.

On Friday, Donald McKayle's 1951 "Games" first looked cartoonish: Performers from Lula Washington Dance Theatre goofed through children's games to the onstage chants of Tamica Washington-Miller and Melvin Clark III. But the dancers' acting, dancing and occasional singing slowly transformed their wide-eyed expressions into mirrors for humanity, giving the piece's tragic end a striking power. One girl left the stage, chased by an unseen cop, and returned beaten and disheveled to die in Clark's arms as his singsong turned to a wail.

Two of Friday's solos, Talley Beatty's 1947 "Mourner's Bench" and Alvin Ailey's 1971 "Cry," touched similarly raw places, but depictions of pain laid the groundwork for joy, or at least hope. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company's William B. McClellan Jr. danced Beatty's work as though barely able to contain the forces within himself, his bare torso quivering and hands shaking as he slid along a bench. But serenity soared through his outstretched arms in the work's signature poses: He straddled the bench, leaning forward, chin high, chest open and later stood, arm raised.

In "Cry," Dwana Adiaha Smallwood overflowed with frustration, pain and unfettered joy. In the jubilant finale, Smallwood's performance provided a reminder that dancers' technique and artistry continually breathe new life into African American choreography.

Fine dancers showcased great works on Saturday, too, particularly those of Rennie Harris Puremovement and Philadanco. In Harris's "Students of the Asphalt Jungle," virtuosic break dancers matched mind-boggling head spins and energetic attitudes (one dancer jumped from the stage into the audience) to draw screams from the crowd. Earlier Harris employed robotic popping and locking in the provocative, dark solo "Endangered Species." As his recorded voice catalogued instances of racial trauma, his body made the resulting internal breakdown visible.

Philadanco exhibited the fusion of modern dance and jazz so important to African American dance in George Faison's "Suite Otis." In lateral leans, long layouts and multiple pirouettes, the dancers imbued the structurally simple choreography with dynamic phrasing set to Otis Redding's music.

Norwood Pennewell and Keisha Clarke dominated Garth Fagan's "Dancecollageforromie" with their duet "Detail: Down Home Also." They did what only dancers can do, explaining relationships solely in the body's terms: Their lifted legs crossed in the air and their heads gently tilted to barely touch.

Explicit nods to African influence came Saturday in Tamango's Urban Tap's "Kaifou Danjere" ("Danger Crossroad") and Friday in Dance Theatre of Harlem's "South African Suite." Tamango linked percussive traditions, first dancing barefoot, with jingling bells on his legs, and then donning tap shoes to create a one-man rhythmic storm.

In Augustus van Heerden, Laveen Naidu and Arthur Mitchell's collaboration set to South African music, the women, particularly Christiane Cristo-Ezewoko, Tai Jimenez and Akua Parker, undergirded the balletic softness with a deeper strength.

Performances conclude tonight with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company