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NCSU Centerstage continued its long tradition of excellent contemporary dance programming in Stewart Theatre by bringing the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company to perform its newest work, four dances comprising colôr-ógrăphy, n. the dances of Jacob Lawrence. DCDC had premiered them just three weeks before, in their home theater in Ohio. The project, inspired by Lawrence’s paintings, also showcased the work of four powerful African-American choreographers.
Jacob Lawrence, often grouped with the Harlem Renaissance artists, was a wonderful painter and printmaker who created a unique style. His vividly colored interlocking shapes created satisfying flat surfaces, but his pictures were always figurative and narrative as well, generally depicting some aspect of African-American life or history. He often worked in series. Each painting is complete and moving on its own, but viewed together they take on the temporal power of cinema — or of dance.
Lawrence's work is thus an ideal inspiration for choreographers, not only because of its human-story content, but for the way it locks together story, shape, line, color, pattern and action. For colôr-ógrăphy, the choreographers were marvelously well assisted by the production designers, who created a rich stage world, mostly out of light, and by the fabulous costume designer Omotayo "Wunmi" Olaiya, one of the most talented costumers working in dance today.
The program was bracketed with strong works by Donald Byrd, one of the older masters of American choreography, and by the younger, overwhelmingly brilliant Rennie Harris. Byrd is a great storyteller who gets right to the deep emotions driving the action, and his "J Lawrence Paint (Harriet Tubman Remix)" is another important story, movingly told.
The lights come up on a line of seated backs. One by one, the dancers' arms shoot straight into the air, then angle over as each clasps the hand of the next person. A swaying moves up and down the line to "One of these Mornings" before the scene freezes into a tableau.
Suddenly, the music changes and the image bursts into motion. Harriet Tubman in her head scarf springs into the scene, pointing, pointing, pointing the upward way. A series of scenes unfolds to well-chosen music. Tubman goes and returns, goes and returns, leading and exhorting with the repeated triple gesture of the upwardly pointing hand. We go past "The Livin' Is Easy," all playful elasticity. and past "Strange Fruit," a haunting male solo with a thick rope hanging behind the dancer. We spend a long time where "Nobody Knows My Troubles (but God)," but when the lights go down, Tubman is still reaching — high, high, higher — reaching to freedom.
Reggie Wilson, another outstanding choreographer, was also represented by an episodic piece, but his "We Ain't Goin' Home But We Finna To Get The Hell Up Outta Here" was far less satisfying. Many of the sections were brilliant, but, partly because the music accompanying them was so wildly varied, they did not cohere into a unified whole. The episodes were connected by the energy of the dancing, but the conceptual connections were weak.
DCDC's Artistic Director Kevin Ward gave us "Continuing Education." It was more about the act of artmaking than any other topic. Four dancers in blue and gold made shapes and lines and combinations. When they were satisfied, they brushed paint on their bodies and made prints. It was charming and colorful and supplied some leavening to what otherwise would have been a too-rich heavy cake of a program.
The program closed with Rennie Harris' gorgeous "Jacobs Ladder." It is hard to know what to say about Harris' work. It is full of images, but is not about them or dependent on them. It is intensely musical and makes you feel the music in every cell of your body. His choreography requires superior technical proficiency, flexibility, athletic power, and stamina, but it is not designed to show off those things. It's got plenty of ideas, but they aren't the point, either. Harris takes us to a place where flow and motion are all, where the great wild life-force of the universe is unimpeded. It is without, on the stage, sizzling among the dancers; it is within, in our blood, thrilling and thumping and cavorting, flooding away the small silly structures with which we try to tame it. That is revolutionary artwork, and like Donald Byrd’s Tubman figure, it points the way toward freedom.