The African American Dance Ensemble (its predecessor was the Chuck Davis Dance Company) has been a mainstay of the dance scene in the Triangle since the early 1980s, but the AADE's appearance on November 4 in Meredith College's Jones Auditorium made me wonder if the troupe's era as an artful performance company is coming to an end. The emphasis of Rhythmic Explosion: Sharing Our Legacy seemed more on education, exhortation and even proselytization, not to mention an egregious amount of audience participation, than it did on the kind of supreme aesthetic glory that marked the company in earlier days.
After all the over-55s in the audience were requested to go to the lobby and then parade back into the theater as the rest of us honored this "council of elders," the program began with "Blessed Drums: Echoed Rhythms (Sanctioning) 2002." The drumming (arranged by Osei Appiagyei) was magnificent, but no more so than Chuck Davis. Davis may not be able to leap and land any more, but he can still move. He was heart-stopping in his brief appearance as Shango, god of thunder and protector of the drums. The rest was all shake and shimmy, with both men and women decked out in marvelous costumes that included grass skirts. The men were crowned with tall headdresses as well. Every move the dancers made was augmented by the movement of their clothing. Stafford Berry, Jr., was, as usual, particularly beautiful to watch.
All the energy generated by this spirited dance leached away, however, during a long, boring and very audience-participatory "Griot/Welcoming." There followed what was supposedly the premiere of "Redemption," but it was less a premiere than a re-working of the choreography presented at last year's home season concert. Although this version is an improvement, "Redemption" is still a heavy-handed story of the fall of a lovely woman to the triple-headed devil of sex, drugs, and violence, and her redemption by Christian love, as exemplified by white robes and Shirley Ceasar recordings. ("Steal Away to Jesus" was nearly inaudible beneath the clapping and calling of the audience.)
The following two pieces – an excerpt from "Lolomashi '04/Krin Concerto '02" and "Kuku" – were both wonderful dances in different West African styles, performed with gusto and heart by both the drummers and the dancers. Over the years, the AADE's costumes have changed and become even more wonderful, and the several sets on view in this program were fabulous. Adorned with fringes, flaps, and flounces, pompoms, ruffles, scarves, ties, and necklaces, everything that could possibly move does, along with the rhythmically pulsing braids, breasts, and buttocks. But neither the gorgeous costumes nor the power of the dancers could disguise the fact the troupe has dwindled in numbers: It cannot fill the stage, so the power of the spectacle is not as great as it once was.
Following intermission, the extraordinarily beautiful and talented Stafford Berry, Jr., was joined by his partner in the Berry & Nance Dance Project for the premiere of Berry's "Muumia." While done with a much lighter touch than "Redemption," and containing some very fine passages, rhetoric and dogma still overbalanced the art in places. But these two dancers work so well together, and their emotion is so pure, that the over-burdensome metaphors can be forgiven.
It is not easy to forgive the lengthy interruption that followed, breaking the dance spell. It is lovely to honor people who've been important to the troupe, the dance, and the community, but surely it would be better to get all that out of the way at the beginning and not sap the program. By the time we finally got to "Sharing Our Legacy," I was so thoroughly out of patience that it was difficult to appreciate the passing on of AADE's great spiritual and kinetic traditions to the young dancers of Ligon Middle School and Southeast Raleigh High School.
Ultimately, it was touching to see them move through the rituals then dance joyously into the center, and it was great to see the stage filled with leaping, whirling bodies as the great drums synchronized every heartbeat in the theater. No one could be unhappy to see dozens of young girls, black and white, taking firm stances, opening their chests, and shaking it from head to toe. But this was not really about art. As Chuck Davis often says, "we are all about community." As an expression of community, and of cultural continuity, it was very fine. But from an aesthetic point of view, it would have been even more pleasing if every dancer had been as good as Berry and the other members, present and past, of the Ensemble.
Many people who attend dance events are uneasy with the notion of audience participation, and when I've come to see someone else perform, my own tolerance for it is limited. In fact, Chuck Davis is the only person who has ever gotten me to enjoy it at all. I'm still happy to stand up at the end and chant: Peace, Love, Respect for EVERYbody. But the explaining, the lecturing, the honoring, the repeated interruptions of the artistic energy reached new levels at this performance. In a concert, one wants to sit in the theater and thrill to the drums and the artistic bodies in motion on the stage. Davis says, "We don't call them concerts..., we call them sharing." One cannot stay irritated with Davis, whose art is often larger than life. The problem on this occasion is that all the sharing diluted the art, and at the end there was not quite enough of that.