Dance Place offered a beguilingly motley program under the label "Contemporary Dance and Performance" this past weekend as the first installment of its annual February-long celebration of Black History Month.
Only three of the eight works presented dealt explicitly with African American history, tradition or experience. Five involved spoken or sung texts -- a fairly pervasive feature of Washington dance, natural enough for this most rhetorical of cities, and also a trend of dance in general during the past decade.
The most conspicuous common feature of a program that otherwise defied generalization was the power, magnetism and pungency of a number of its outstanding individual performers -- most notably, Kimberli Boyd, Ajax Joe Drayton, Kwelismith and Boris Willis. This was also the evening's most memorable attribute -- on the whole, the quality of the performances overshadowed that of the works.
The weakest entries were those by choreographers Alvin Mayes and Adrain Bolton. In Mayes's "Miss Mary Mack," nine young women in garishly tinted wigs struck sassy poses, played patty-cake and other clapping games, and bounced in and out of randomly shifting configurations, all to no readily apparent purpose. Bolton's "Innervisions" also involved nine women, this time in long full skirts of shiny green, who sped strenuously, and roughly, through nonstop steps and figures. The aural background melded excerpts from oratory by Martin Luther King Jr., a Stevie Wonder song and that weary warhorse of emotional extortion, the Pachelbel Canon. Moral uplift was the presumable aim, but the choreography amounted to little more than a studio workout.
Like some musical virtuosos who can gratify the ear merely by playing scales, some dancers are such innately galvanic movers that they can electrify the most indifferent choreography. Willis's performance piece "Ah, the Beauty of a Tree" -- a "structured improvisation," according to his program note -- was a rambling, fragmentary patchwork of sulking walks, tap riffs, sudden runs and jumps, odd vocalizations and enigmatic exclamations. Willis's bravura movement, however, outflanked the work's inscrutability.
In Ben Watts's jocular "Compression," Watt and Drayton pulled a weird jumble of props from a suitcase and a tote bag, and proceeded to swipe at one another with legs and arms until, periodically, they collapsed laughing -- a commentary, perhaps, on the lacerating rivalry of close friends or intimates. Poet, musician, author and performance artist Kwelismith sang, drummed and mimed her way through the two-part "Letter to Ramona/Strange Fruit," a defiant, wrathful indictment of racial injustice. Her warmly eloquent, velvety alto voice was its most persuasive component.
Drayton's anti-war "War Dance" (for himself and Watts) was a half spoken, half danced polemic of virulent wit, posing satirical but serious questions about the pandemic urge toward violence.
The other two pieces were choreographed by Liz Lerman, in collaboration with the soloists featured in each. "A Life in the Nation's Capital," seen earlier at the Kennedy Center and ferociously danced by Willis, is a grim portrait of a man literally battered and broken by an environment in which brutality, fear and bloodletting are commonplace. "Anatomy of an Inside Story" is a less cohesive solo (the program describes it as a work in progress), in Lerman's familiar vein of movement-cum-gesture-cum-declamation. But the riveting, consummately elegant dancing by the strikingly beautiful Boyd -- whose autobiographical reflections on what it means to be black in today's America formed the basis of the text -- made this easily the evening's pinnacle.