Gesel Mason Alone: Memorably Moving

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006

Gesel Mason's one-woman show Saturday at Dance Place was the sort of performance that in any other realm would enshrine her among a select few standouts. You could compare it to a pitcher's no-hitter, a senator's 12-hour filibuster, a lone cyclist's daylong, head-into-the-wind breakaway in the Tour de France.

The solo dance performance is a rare event, and a successful one like Mason's is even rarer, for several reasons. You have to be an incredible egotist even to try it, but you have to be an incredibly skilled egotist to do it right. Few artists have the physical and theatrical strength -- the sheer stage presence -- to pull it off. Consider the stamina required: It's one body, onstage, dancing all night. Clever program choices can ease the demands, but there remains just one person whom the audience has paid to watch.

Meeting expectations is another challenge; the success of the show rests upon one person's shoulders (and spine, hips, legs, etc.). The pressure not to falter, not to fall, not to fail, is enormous.

Then there is the intense dramatic load, the job of bringing alive some emotional truth in one piece after another. Add to that the burden of choosing the right mix of choreography, so there is some kind of overall thematic or conceptual cohesion as well as enough variety to make the evening interesting.

Mason made it all work Saturday night with an ambitious, riveting and impressively executed program she called "No Boundaries." Subtitled "Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers," it is the culmination of a five-year project to learn solo pieces from five African American artists. As Mason explained in video interviews that accompanied each work, she wanted to demonstrate that black dance encompassed more than African ritual, gospel music or the sweeping, deeply emotive technique favored by the widely known choreography of Alvin Ailey. In performing works by Bebe Miller, Donald McKayle, Urban Bush Women's Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, David Rousseve and Andrea E. Woods, a former dancer with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, as well as two of her own pieces, Mason hoped to display a greater breadth of expression.

Saturday's show was the first time Mason had performed the entire suite of seven works (six listed in the program, plus one unannounced "bonus track" ); she had danced a few of the solos on other programs over the past few years.

"How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert, or What in the Hell Are They Doing on Stage," from 1999, remains fresh because its laugh-out-loud humor is rooted in truth. In this work, Mason, formerly of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, skewers the oh-so-serious conventions of modern dance, its tendency to be accompanied by bad music with no beat or to look "like a bad game of charades" that you can't figure out. (Cheles Rhynes, who was also the program's technical director and chief videographer, read the hilarious narrative while Mason unspooled her perfectly timed, deadpan parody.) This work issues a wise directive: to focus on the feelings a dance evokes, rather than to puzzle out its meaning.

If there was one link to the rest of the works, it was passion. In Woods's "Belle of the Ball," accompanied by Tia Hanna's Appalachian-derived violin composition, Mason whirled through heady exuberance, intentional exhaustion, solemn introspection and finally a sense of serene, majestic peacefulness. Zollar's "Bent," to spacey acid music by George Clinton ("Maggot Brain"), was pure physicality, now a study of the curve of Mason's backside, now an essay on the transporting power of abandoning oneself to the beat.

Miller's "Rain," the evening's most intricately constructed and conceptually sound work, played on extremes: heavy drums and frenetic exertions that melt into the unearthly beauty of Villa-Lobos's well-known "Bachiana Brasileira" No. 5, with its sustained, silvery vocal. In the video interview that preceded this work, Miller had spoken of her desire to choreograph to this music while also feeling that somehow, as a "strong black woman," she shouldn't -- it wasn't "her" music, it wasn't her style. The result is a work of moving ambiguity.

With the Villa-Lobos, Mason halted her frantic jumping to curl up like a pussycat on a patch of lush grass onstage; she lolled around, caressing the thick plush, but there was still a sense of restlessness, as if this weren't quite the right spot. As the lights dimmed and the music faded, Mason rolled onto the bare floor, in a subtle statement of living between two worlds.

Some of the works were not so subtle. McKayle's "Saturday's Child," which Mason previewed a month ago, squeezed every drop of venom from Countee Cullen's poem of the same name, a biting lament of an impoverished birth and deprived childhood that took on an especially acid tone as Mason recited it. One couldn't help but admire her strength, however, in shuddering as if she had palsy or planting herself on one crouching leg while she cradled the other in her arms.

Rousseve's "Jumping the Broom" also hammered out a point about the savagery of discrimination, but in a thought-provoking way, as it linked the brutal treatment of slaves who wed in defiance of anti-marriage laws with the current difficulties faced by same-sex couples seeking the same thing.

In a post-show discussion, Rhynes explained that Mason wasn't sure she'd have the marathon-like endurance to end the show with her own work "Flava," so it was kept off the printed program. But then, there she was, capping the evening with fireworks: hip-hop and capoeira moves -- you know, the one-handed hand stands, the spins on the fingers, feet in the air -- set to a heavy rap beat. Just in case we hadn't already been completely awed.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company