GESEL MASON has plenty on her mind these days. She's commuting to New York and beyond to work with choreographer Ralph Lemon on his "Geography Project." She's still assimilating the finishing touches of a new piece by acclaimed choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of the Urban Bush Women dance troupe, and she's in the thick of preparing for her own solo program: "No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers," which comes to Dance Place this weekend.
But Mason isn't just mired in the present -- with deadlines and multi-city rehearsal schedules pressing for her time. A modern dancer and co-founder of Mason/Rhynes Productions, a locally based dance production company, Mason is looking out for the future of modern dance. Her four-year "No Boundaries" project will not only tour to theaters large and small around the nation in coming years, but it will also document and preserve the works -- some little known -- of contemporary African American modern-dance choreographers for generations to come.
So while Mason rehearses and learns new dances from Zollar, New Yorker Bebe Miller and others, a videographer documents the process. At rehearsals, the camera captures the back story of what goes into crafting a piece of choreography: the rhythmic and dynamic variations, the emotional nuances, the musical juxtapositions and the stop-and-start nature of the rehearsal process will all be preserved on tape for posterity. It's a legacy that Mason sees as essential to black cultural preservation. Selected sections from the video documentation will be shown during this weekend's program in conjunction with the finished dances.
"What's important to 'No Boundaries' is that we talk to the artists and ask in what ways is their work influenced by their culture," Mason explains. "For me, 'No Boundaries' means that there are no limits to the vision and creativity of black artists. There isn't one definition that defines a black dance or a black dancer." Mason wants viewers, either of the live programs or of the still-in-production video/DVD project, to understand the incredible diversity of black dance in North America. "We speak on camera to the artist and discuss . . . their creative work . . . and bring awareness to the field about historic works and emerging artists," she says.
Mining that cultural legacy through choreographic expression has compelled Mason to explore the deep and rich canon of African American creativity. On this weekend's "No Boundaries" program, the works span three decades, beginning with Donald McKayle's 1974 solo "Angelitos Negros" (Little Black Angels), performed by guest dancer Nejla Y. Yatkin to the stirring recorded vocals of singer Roberta Flack. Up-and-comer Andrea E. Woods's three-part "Belle of the Ball," created just last year for Mason, infuses contemporary modern dance with an African flavor. "Belle" will be performed to the accompaniment of Tia Hannah's live original violin and vocal score.
The program's world premiere, Zollar's "Bent," is a solidly focused and driven performance by Mason. "Jawole is playing with the idea of whether the spirit can be broken beyond repair or if there is something salvageable. . . . Is it possible to help this person?" Mason says. With a recording of the forceful psychedelic guitar of George Clinton, the piece puts Mason onto a precipice, at the point of losing control, both physically and psychically. This brush with the "No Boundaries" sentiment is one the dancer is more than willing to handle.
When Mason began work on "No Boundaries" two years ago, she planned on completing the project by now. Looking back, Mason says, "I didn't imagine this then, but "No Boundaries" is really limitless in terms of documenting and illustrating the diversity of black choreographers . . . and bringing them to a place that's accessible to all." No boundaries, indeed.
NO BOUNDARIES: DANCING THE VISIONS OF CONTEMPORARY BLACK CHOREOGRAPHERS -- Saturday at 8, Sunday at 7. Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE. 202-269-1600.