The Washington area is home to a veritable rainbow of ethnic dance troupes. You want Armenian folk dancers? You can probably find them, swirling around at a festival somewhere. A far rarer find is a choreographer who can successfully fuse ethnic traditions with modern technique and package everything into a performance that a wide audience will find compelling.
Stefanie Diahann Belnavis, a young Jamaican American dancer, may be one of those of those choreographers. Alas, she’s moving to Massachusetts to pursue graduate studies. But before leaving town, she debuted two ambitious works at Dance Place Saturday night. The first, “Hummingbird,” is a commission honoring 50 years of Jamaican independence, as performed by Belnavis and three additional dancers who are noticeably less skilled. Look past the wobbly arabesques, however, and there is much to admire about the movement.
As is typical in Caribbean choreography, Belnavis and her dancers perform with a low center of balance. They crouch, but gravity seems to be pulling them sideways, not straight down. Like windmills, swaying arms power the dancers’ slight bodies. Belnavis pushes her dancers to adopt more delicate, Western leg positions, with pointed toes and precise footwork. The result is lovely long lines, extended sideways. “Hummingbird” was set to a mix of music by Bob Marley and Steve Reich, a surprisingly workable fusion. Even the Sarah McLachlan song “Gloomy Sunday,” featured in the short closing work “Penumbra,” came off as non-cloying. Belnavis had the dancers, dressed in black, balance on one foot and freeze, except for the knee or elbow joints, which were left to swing freely.
The second half of the show was pure performance art. “Sighted” explores Belnavis’s loss of vision in one eye. After exiting the theater for intermission, audience members were led back in small groups, following an onstage trail through a maze of lights. Dancers clicked the bulbs on and off. Televisions buzzed with static and black-and-white video of Belnavis describing her limited vision. For a choreographer with impaired vision, she offers viewers much to see.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.