When was Marvin Gaye’s song “What’s Going On” most relevant — in 1971, when it was released, during overriding American disgust with war, and agitation against bigotry and inequality? Or in 2016, which feels like a dark variation on the same themes?
The timeliness of a beautifully realized dance production inspired by Gaye’s gentle protest song is almost eerie, especially given last week’s presidential election. The widely diverse audience that filled Dance Place to capacity over the weekend to see the production, titled “What’s Going On: Life, Love and Social Justice,” surely flocked to the black-box space in Northeast Washington for some measure of comfort. That was abundantly on offer in this show, as well as defiance and a gloom-lifting spiritual boost.
There’s more good news about “What’s Going On”: This collaboration among local choreographers Vincent E. Thomas, Ralph Glenmore and Sylvia Soumah is the first work wholly produced by Dance Place, which has overseen its creation. And a tour is likely, according to Dance Place Director Carla Perlo. Performances continue Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at Dance Place. Reston Center Stage will host “What’s Going On” on Feb. 22 and further performances at colleges out of the area are in the works.
A smart local dance tribute to Gaye, who died in 1984, makes so much sense, it’s a wonder it hasn’t happened before now. The Motown star and soul singer was born and raised in the District, and he developed his voice there, in the choir of his father’s church. The idea for this production came to Richard Pilkinton, a former Dance Place board member and Perlo’s husband, nearly three years ago. A longtime fan of Gaye’s music, he brought Thomas on board as the project’s artistic director and choreographer, aided by Glenmore, a former Alvin Ailey company member and jazz teacher, and Soumah, a West African dance expert and resident artist at Dance Place. Auditions drew 100 dancers for eight jobs. “What’s Going On” was a year in the making.
The work unfolds organically, as a relaxed dance party in a middle-class living room, where Gaye’s unique phrasing and the insistent yearning of his songs (“Your Precious Love,” “Got to Give It Up,” “Let’s Get It On”) form a rich atmosphere of feeling. Against this, social dances of the 1960s and ’70s evolve into expressive flicks and solo turns of ineffable longing. For one lone woman, the gentle waltz of Gaye’s account of “My Funny Valentine” becomes an anthem of melancholy introspection but also hard-won independence.
The dancing reaches a peak in Gaye’s jubilant 1967 duet with Tammi Terrell, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with Gaye the raspy, ardent poet and Terrell the winged voice of joy. The dancers, handsomely costumed by Judy Hansen in a warm, festive palette of reds, pinks and browns, responded with a soaring vision of collective harmony.
At the evening’s end, a more somber and resolute unity recurred as the dance motif for the title song, which marries the velvety smoothness of soul to a cry against brutality. Wisely, the choreographers avoided miming the chorus of “What’s Going On” or resorting to a heavy-handed treatment. Instead, the dancers mirrored the clear but understated tone of Gaye’s voice and message with a sweeping, circular finale that whirled chaos into order and offered the sweetest solace possible: people coming together.