Pearson, a champion of the Beat Ya Feet dance style, which is rooted in go-go music, said that fitting choreography to a space is like setting words to music.
“Writing a song, you can have a nice beat or sound, but the lyrics won’t always match,” he says. “So when it comes to the space and the music and dancing, as well, it’s the same.”
That concept — the tailoring of terpsichorean energy to a specific location — is central to the dance-film series, which Washington Performing Arts created this fall by commissioning local dancer-choreographers to devise, and perform, dances customized for the spaces at six area businesses. Representing a diversity of styles — from West African to flamenco to modern — the dances anchor the films, which also include snippets of interviews with artists and business leaders. The films, each about seven minutes long, were released one by one in recent weeks, and all are now available to stream free on the Home Delivery section on the Washington Performing Arts website and its Facebook and YouTube platforms.
“Dance in DC,” says series lead curator C. Lorenzo Evans III, aims “to show the spirit and vibrancy of entrepreneurship and business and the arts, and that those things are still going on despite being in the midst of a global pandemic.”
Evans, Washington Performing Arts chief operating officer and director of finance, is also a professional dancer/choreographer by background, and his knowledge of the local dance scene informed the series. He worked on the films with Chilean-born filmmaker Francisco Campos-Lopez.
Evans sent Ashanté Green of the Dance Institute of Washington to the vegetable-forward Chaia Tacos; flamenco eminence Edwin Aparicio to the distillery and craft cocktail bar Republic Restoratives; 15-year-old Matthew Crittenden to the tech-friendly arts destination Artechouse; award-winning Kuchipudi dancer/choreographer Anuradha Nehru to the Line hotel; and West African dance expert Akosua Amoakua to Nubian Hueman, a boutique with products that reflect the African diaspora.
Alignments of style and mission, visual considerations and dancer preference were factors in the pairings, Evans says, noting that the businesses did not pay for the films. “Dance in DC” is part of “Mars Arts DC: Virtual,” an online version of Washington Performing Arts’s signature community engagement project.
Not surprisingly, given the pandemic and the nontraditional artistic venues, extensive planning was required. “The business locations are not film sets, and they’re not stages. So we had to come in and really curate the shot,” says Evans, who did walk-throughs of the locations and prepped the artists on what they’d encounter. The shoots unfurled with coronavirus protocols in place, largely outside the businesses’ regular hours of operations.
Despite the forethought, on-the-ground conditions presented challenges. Not only was the Ben’s Chili Bowl space on the cozy side, Pearson says, it also has carpet, which left him and Davis more tired than usual because of the drag on their shoes. But the duo adapted. “Because we’re professionals,” he says.
They improvised their choreography on the spot, executing such classic Beat Ya Feet steps as the Three Step Kick, as well as Pearson’s namesake step, the Crazy Legz Reset, a burst of crisscrossing leg movements with twists and turns.
As Ben’s Chili Bowl was getting ready to open, Campos-Lopez captured footage of food preparation, and when it came to recording the hoofin,’ he concentrated on “translating for the audience how fun and joyful it is to see these guys dance.”
Having Ben’s Chili Bowl host Crazy Legz was a no-brainer, given the local-icon status of both the restaurant and Beat Ya Feet’s musical soul mate — go-go. Plus, says Ben’s Chili Bowl co-owner Kamal Ali, the U Street area “was always an entertainment corridor back in the Black Broadway days, so we’ve always had an affinity for the arts in our community.”
Apt in a different way was the assignment of flamenco to Republic Restoratives. The bar/distillery’s chief financial officer, Sarah Mosbacher, says that her company has partnered with Washington Performing Arts before but that under coronavirus restrictions there is less convertible space. Republic Restoratives has closed its bar and pivoted to delivery, pickup and national sales, so the distillery floor is crammed with supplies.
The only suitable dance site was the room where barrels of spirits sit to age. Fortunately, that milieu resonated with Aparicio, a luminary of the flamenco world. When Evans described the room, Aparicio thought of the Spanish city of Jerez de la Frontera, the namesake of sherry and a renowned bastion of flamenco. Dancing in the barrel room of Republic Restoratives, he says, “would feel like we’re doing it in Jerez!”
Aparicio performed with two frequent collaborators, guitarist Ricardo Marlow and singer/percussionist Francisco Orozco, and put a sheet of plywood down as a temporary dance floor to reduce slippage risk heightened by the nails on his shoes’ toes and heels (a standard feature of flamenco footwear).
He devised his choreography mostly on the spot, working within the structure of an alegrías, a traditional flamenco form he chose because its upbeat mood seemed to suit the boozy surroundings. (“Alegría” means happiness in Spanish.)
For most of the films, filmmaker Campos-Lopez wove the music in during postproduction, using tracks supplied by the artists, to ensure higher sound quality. But he recorded the flamenco music on location, because dance, song and instrumentals were so organically enmeshed. Flamenco is “so outspoken, but at the same time it’s so intimate because [dancer and musicians] are in a trance with each other,” Campos-Lopez says.
He also did on-site recording of the ankle bells worn by the three dancers in Nehru’s piece at the Line hotel, to add that extra bit of fidelity and texture.
God is in the details, even when a film is just minutes long.
“They’re very short films,” Evans says, “but we try to get as much inspiration and beauty as possible in each one.”
Mars Arts DC: Virtual — Dance in DC Free to stream at washingtonperformingarts.org.