By Walter Rutledge
The Faison Firehouse and Summerstage presented Harlem Dance Caravan on Friday, August 9 and Saturday, August 10 at Marcus Garvey Park’s Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in the village of Harlem.
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The standing room only outdoor presentation harked back to a format synonymous to the black dance experience of the 70’s and 80’s. The eclectic performance featuring works by six dance companies was an exciting evening of dance that not only bridged the diaspora, but also offered a glimpse into the future.
Paris 1925 provided the ideal template for bridging the cultural/historical divide. Choreographer George Faison created a dazzling homage to the Negro artistic invasion of Paris in the 1920’s. Set to N****s in Paris by Kanye West and Jay-Z Faison’s high energy theatrical work reminisced director Baz Luhrmann approach in his films Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby by telling a classic tale in a contemporary style.
This visually stunning work featured period-inspired costumes and an effective amalgam of ballet, modern, jazz, tap, vernacular dance and period movement. The work also showcased the talents of twelve dancers including guest artist, tap dancer Maurice Chestnut; but the real star was Faison’s dynamic choreography. His inventive use of varied and developed patterns and movement passages, and the seamless integration of dance styles kept Paris 1925 fresh and unpredictable. Dancer Aqura Lacey channeled Josephine Baker bringing the legendary chanteuse into twenty-first century vogue. Baker is a familiar subject for Faison who received an Emmy Award for his choreography in the 1991 television biopic The Josephine Baker Story.
Harlem Dance Caravan also marked the first performance of Faison’s Universal Dance Experience, after a ten-year absence. The company was renowned for exceptional dancers and groundbreaking choreography, and this latest incarnation lived up to the standard set by the original. Always the quintessential showman Faison’s work created a dance prologue setting the tone of an evening of varied works featuring strong proficient dancers, and original choreographic works.
Opus Dance Theatre followed with Hindrance a quartet by Jeffrey Page. Dancers Krystal Breakley, Hayley Fridenstine, Major Nesby and Devin Roberts performed to the somber and introspective jazz inspired score featuring Amiri Baraka and The Roots. Page’s use of ballet infused modern dance complemented this abstract narrative that dealt with relationships. The centerpiece of the work was a confrontational duet performed with considerable élan by Nesby and Roberts.
Bitter Sweet performed by Jamel Gaine’s Creative Outlet also expressed the theme of relationships. The ensemble work set to music by Roberta Flack, featured ten dancers, but quickly transitioned into a series of four duets, each expressing different aspects of love. Gaines was able to successfully build the structural intensity of the work with each ensuing duet.
The first duet presented Jeroboam Bozeman and Malaiyka Reid in a tryst punctuated by spontaneous lifts and quiet control. The following duets with Kevin Hunte and Jenna Mitchell, and Taeler Cyrus and Jada Williams embellished upon Gaines’ theme, which eventually brought this section to a dramatic climax. The duet that was truly noteworthy was between two male dancers Ryan Rankine and Deon Sass. This section was thoughtful and tastefully nurturing, displaying an emotional maturity expressed through cleanly crafted choreography.
The next section for five men had a ritual quality of bonding through both unison and individual movement. Gaines captured a storytelling element not seen in modern dance works in recent years. Bitter Sweet possessed good dramatic style coupled with strong technical prowess; it also demonstrated Jamel Gaines considerable growth as a dance maker.
Forces of Nature Dance Theatre presented Abdel Salaam’s B’Flowin in B’Smoove. The ensemble work staged in three sections had a far away mystic feeling. The opening section conjured this imagery with moving caravans of bodies crossing in counterpoint with sophisticated cannons that defied convention. The movement, which fluctuated from tight unison to multiple passages performed simultaneously, created a playful dialog among the large predominately female cast. Naimah Zakiyyah Saleem was a standout throughout, her crystalline attack was balanced by a feline sensuality that both wowed and wooed the audience.
Johari Mayfield and Jason Herbert performed the visually majestic second section duet. The couple seamlessly slithered through a series of sustained and contorted floor work movement sequences with sensual precision. Herbert, the only male featured throughout the entire work, approached this section with the cautious restraint and passion of a lover invading a forbidden seraglio.
Choreographer Salaam danced the opening of the last section with a brief journey through time that recalled the spirit of Earl Snakehips Tucker, James Brown and Michael Jackson. As the stage filled with dancers the subsequent movement subtlety varied Salaam’s initial statement, creating a quiet fire. Stillness was juxtaposed with quick upper body gesture based movement and undulating torsos as the cast swelled to seventeen performers. The work reached a cool but mesmerizing climax with Jae “Rabbit” Ponder slowly moving upstage.
Waldean Nelson’s eloquent rendition of The Real Cool, an excerpt from Mr. TOL E. RAncE, was the real finale of the program. Set to an instrumental version of What A Wonderful World by Brandon McCune, the solo has been the signature performance piece of choreographer Camille A. Brown. Nelson captured the works poignant and artistically complex qualities and made it truly his own. He was able to combine the required introspective power and savvy charisma to reach over the footlights and touch the audience.
Illstyle and Peace Productions’ presentation was more of an epilogue than a closing number. The eighteen-member group (thirteen men and five women) performed a raise the roof hip-hop dance party both on stage and in the audience. The non-stop high-flying urban spectacle included stylish street dance moves with “cirque” bravado. West African steps were integrated throughout with varying degrees of effectiveness.
It was good to see the testosterone driven ensemble incorporate female dancers, even if only as a novelty. Hopefully their role will be expanded in the future. The performance ended with dancers flipping and diving off the stage to the concrete below, and bringing audience members to party in front of the stage.
The Summerstage 2013 Marcus Garvey Park performances were a rousing dance celebration. It was good to see the camaraderie and commitment from the enthusiastic audiences, who unapologetically applauded and cheered throughout the evening. This reminisced the early days of the Delacorte Theater and the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Centers performances; where vocal audiences treated dance more like a rock concert than tranquil/cerebral high art. I suspect this had a great deal to do with the effective programming/curating, which clearly understood both the venue and the audience.
In Photo: 1) Haniyyah Muhammad, Azama Bashir and Khalia Campbell 2) Aqura Lacey 3) Major Nesby and Devin Roberts 4) Jeroboam Bozeman and Malaiyka Reid 5) Ryan Rankine and Deon Sass 6) Johari Mayfield and Jason Herbert 7) Abdel Salaam 8) Waldean Nelson 9 & 10) Illstyle and Peace Productions cast
Alan Roche photographer
Video courtesy Faison Fireshouse