Durham’s beloved African-American Dance Ensemble returned this year to the American Dance Festival for a two-night run in Page Auditorium. As has become the company’s norm over the years, the event was at least as much of a preaching and teaching session as a dance concert. While there is still great dancing to be seen in an AADE presentation, there is even more emphasis on (verbal) community building, morality, African heritage, and spiritual values. If you want to see the dancing, you must participate in, or at least put up with, a great deal of preaching and manipulative stuff from the stage. For years, the mix of dancing with the talking and ritual elements was more balanced, and worked fine. Now, the levels are off. Shorn of its bits about dance history and the ADF, the presentation would have been more suitable for an elementary or middle-school audience than for adults attending one of the world’s great dance festivals.
Particularly offensive was The Jalibah’s Journal (parts I and II) that book-ended Judge Ye Not!, choreographed by AADE associate artistic director and dancer Stafford C. Berry, Jr. This “journal” was a stand-up spoken by Zayd Malik Shakur, who proclaimed himself a poet. Essentially it was a lecture on right living, a talk such as you might have frequently with your young child in the process of socializing her. It was boring. And not only that, it stepped all over the one-line content of Berry’s dance, which had four women taking turns being mean to each other — no drama, no tension — for an unnecessarily long time. Berry is wonderful dancer and can be a strong choreographer, but this is not one of his more advanced efforts. Should one not make that judgment? The theme — judge not — screams for critical comment: Art is all about judging, evaluating, comparing, choosing, and eliminating the mediocre along with the worthless. The dance is about people judging people, of course, not artwork, but it would be a better piece of art if it said what it really means: It is wrong to condemn others (it could follow that if you do, then you are a bad person, but that’s too much complexity for this exercise), but all positive judgments happily accepted.
The evening had its moments. It is worth a great deal of aggravation to see Chuck Davis dance, if only for a minute or two. His power is a ghost of itself, but his grace is unmitigated by the years. It was beautiful to see his regal form, garbed all in white, moving with such delicacy and authority.
The other real treat of the night was seeing AADE “alumnus” L.D. Burris dancing with the ensemble again. For some time, Burris was seen more often with Two Near the Edge, and now he has his own teaching studio. One of the best things I’ve ever seen at ADF was L.D. Burris dancing with AADE in a Donald McKayle work, back in 1988. He can’t fly like that any more, but neither did the much younger Stafford Berry need to cut him any slack. Berry is extremely tall and slim, while Burris is shorter with deep chest and thighs, but they both have magnificent heads of hair — great bundles of dreadlocks. To see them side by side in glorious motion was a better expression of the honor of the company’s past and the potential of its future than any number of spoken words.