"It's a great party," says narrator Geoffrey Holder, "and it's not over yet." It's as succinct -- and valid -- a summary as you could find.
Holder is talking about "Dance Black America," the 1983 festival of black dance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that was filmed live and now appears as a 90-minute special in the "Great Performances" series, to be aired on Channel 26 at 9 tonight.
Holder's words encapsulate the infinitely rich evolution of black dance in this country, from the slave era and the plantations to contemporary ballet stages and music videos, from African rituals to the jazz explosion to the forefront of today's avant-garde. As Holder notes, it's a story that's still being written, as the current rage for breakdancing and black participation in Post-Modern dance illustrate.
The black contribution to American dance culture has been recognized, but never accorded anything like its full due in public awareness. A strong case could be made to the effect that most, if not all, the major innovations in choreographic art in this country stem from African sources, including a holistic approach to dance anatomy, the relation of dance to the earth and nature, the use of muscular isolation, torque and contraction, and the idea of rhythmic syncopation. Yet one is still more likely to hear or read about novelties in the work of Lester Horton, Jack Cole, Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins than about the truly seminal pioneering of Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, John Bubbles or Talley Beatty.
The "Dance Black America" festival was intended as a bird's-eye survey of this contribution, highlighting its scope and depth. As seen in excerpts on TV (the live festival covered four nights of performances by troupes from across the nation), it's a stunningly vital panorama.
The footage ranges from Charles Moore's captivating reproduction of an "Ostrich" dance by Asadata Dafora, one of the first African-born dancers to present authentic work from his continent in Europe and the United States, to Dunham's landmark "Shango" of 1945 performed by the Charles Moore troupe; to Eleo Pomare's incendiary "Junkie" solo from the '60s; to Chuck Green's poetically masterful jazz tapping, to the brilliantly contemporary fusion of African, Caribbean and modern elements in "From Before," danced by Garth Fagan's Bucket Dance Theater. Wedged in also are professional demonstrations of black social and street forms from the days of juba to those of electric boogie.
This video sampler couldn't have covered all the territory the BAM festival did, but there's one unfortunate omission -- Blondell Cummings' "Chicken Soup" solo, which would have been one indication of black sensibility at work within the Post-Modern movement; it could easily have replaced part of the lengthy "Fontessa" number. All in all, though, the program is a winner. It moves along at a bracing clip, keeps explanatory verbiage to a minimum, and captures the excitement of the festival both backstage and on stage. Credit is largely due to two directors -- filmmakers Chris Hegedus and noted documentarian D.A. Pennebaker -- as well as to the artistic directors of the festival, Harold Pierson and Lenwood Sloan. The festival was originally staged as a joint enterprise by BAM and the State University of New York.