The ritual greeting rang from the stage and the audience on October 10 during the African American Dance Ensemble's second home season performance in Durham's Carolina Theater. Pay Attention! I am listening!
It seems absolutely incredible that we have been paying attention to the AADE for 21 years already, but so it is. Developed from the Chuck Davis Company in residence at the American Dance Festival in the early 1980s, AADE was formed in 1983 and quickly became a key feature in Durham's cultural terrain. Still led by the one and only Chuck Davis, AADE is now an internationally renowned touring company. On October 9 and 10 the dancers and musicians reveled in the warm love of the home folks as the company surveyed its past and celebrated the present with a rousing program of the old and the new.
After a ritual of remembrance and memorial, "Roll Call" followed, filling the stage with many of the dancers and musicians from the original Chuck Davis company and founding members and "alumni" of AADE. What a pleasure it was to see these well-remembered artists again, gorgeous in their colorful costumes! As usual, Chuck Davis insists that we remember the ancestors, dead and alive - "those on whose shoulders we stand." The first dance continued this theme. "Ghanaian Suite II" was set on the AADE this fall by Nii Tettey Tetteh and the Kusun Ensemble in a recent residency. Performed by the AADE Touring Unit, this joyous work reaffirmed another of Chuck Davis' core values: it is all about community. As in so many of the AADE's dances, there is plenty of room for individual performance and attention, but the individual comes from and steps back into the group, and in the group is the strength and the glory.
An excerpt from William Banfield's 2000 dance-opera Luyala followed. Lulaya is one of those artworks that one wants to love but really can't. Although it is ambitious and broad of scope, was made by strong collaborators, and has its fabulous moments, the long narrative weighs it down and the music is really not that great. Excerpting the piece helped the length, but without the story's context, the drama was weakened. It didn't help either that the recorded music sounded as if it were coming from a distant cave. Still, any opportunity to see Toya Chinfloo and Stafford C. Berry, Jr., has its rewards.
Next was another partial work, the first section of a new piece to be called "Suite Shirley," dedicated to and honoring gospel singer Shirley Caesar. "Witnesses for the Revolution," choreographed by Chuck Davis, was danced in street clothes. I don't know if it was the absence of the wonderful African-style costumes, the fairly literal narrative of redemption and inclusion, or the weak sound of the recorded gospel music (by Caesar, naturally), but this work felt flat to me.
After the intermission, the drums returned, performing a fantastic, exuberant musical interlude against a three-panel backdrop by Tejoula Turner (sort of Gustav Klimt goes to Africa). "Lolamashi," like "Ghanaian Suite II," allowed each of six players time in the limelight, and each performed some amazing feat while maintaining the beat. The greatest thing about the drum ensembles, though, is the way they become like a group of singing voices, melodic as well as rhythmic.
Stafford C. Berry's 2002 work "Departure" (which premiered at ADF that year) switched the mood again. About loss of loved ones and the difficulty of mourning and accepting death, this was the most moving piece in the program. There was nothing extra in it, and there was enough. While the subject was clear, there was no narrative - all was told with attitudes and spatial relations. Women dance the "Lamentation," supporting and rescuing each other. Berry, who is also the Assistant Artistic Director of AADE, dances in the central section, "Incantation," and he is the High Priest. The women return in the final "Elevation," along with guest C. Kemal Nance, who is spectacular. The piece has a delicacy of understanding that is very beautiful.
The program wrapped up with "Forget Not the Seed (Remembrance II)", which segued into the boisterous Grand Finale. "Forget Not the Seed" reminds us that the ancestors are not the only ones demanding our attention: we must bring along the next generation. In this work founding and current company members were joined by the young dancers of the Collage Dance Company, and all of them were just splendid.
I don't think it is possible to leave an AADE performance feeling anything less than thrilled to be alive and grateful to have been in the presence of so much spirit and energy. So, happy birthday, AADE, and many more! We will be listening as long as you call for our attention.