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The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble - Salome's Daughters, One Nation Under a Groove - Part 2 / 24 Hours in Birmingham, Choros, My Bahai, Divinities

by Robert Abrams
August 18, 2003
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
212-242-0800

The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble - Salome's Daughters, One Nation Under a Groove - Part 2 / 24 Hours in Birmingham, Choros, My Bahai, Divinities

presented at the Joyce Theatre
www.joyce.org

Robert Abrams
August 18, 2003

As I have previously reported, Denver is a city where you can find great CW two-step (Grizzly Rose) and West Coast Swing (Swingtime in the Rockies). I can now report that Denver is also the home of excellent Modern Dance.

The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble graced the stage of the Joyce Theatre in the opening performance of their first season at the Joyce. From a technique perspective, the works presented tonight showed that this is a modern dance company rooted in African dance. From this base, they are willing to push the boundaries and take risks by incorporating other dance forms.

The first dance presented was Salome's Daughters. If you can imagine Salome living to maturity, giving birth to seven daughters and bequeathing each daughter a veil, you can imagine this dance. Seven female dancers came on stage with their faces covered by a translucent veil-like scarf. This had the effect of making the people dancing look disembodied (it is interesting how covering a face can depersonalize in a way that either lifts up towards a spiritual level or debases in the other direction - in this case the effect was a lifting up and thus shared something in common with the effect achieved by Taigu Tales).

Initially the stage was silent save for the stamping of the dancers' feet with bells on. This opening transitioned into two sections with music: a slow section followed by a fast section. In the slow section, each dancer had a chance to present as a soloist offset from the group motion of the ensemble. The solos looked like a fusion of African and Indian movement vocabularies. Of these solos, Annie Gavino, dancing the Veil of Earth, and Lisa Thomas, dancing the Veil of Love, were superb. Their presence, both in motion and in the stillness between the motion, was riveting. The other solos were also enjoyable, if perhaps slightly too tentative. My educated guess is that some of the dancers are less proficient at Indian dance technique than they are with African and Modern technique. With a little further study, I am certain that all of the dancers will go from very good to superb in these solos as they all demonstrated superb dancing both in the fast section of this dance, and other dances presented later in the evening, both of which tended to be more African in nature.

The final section was very energetic with dancers moving rapidly and moving rapidly across the stage. This section was mostly solos without the ensemble behind them. These solos were all at a uniformly high level.

The dancers showed a confident and defiant attitude. The plain beige costumes contrasted with the bright colors of the veils. The dancers did a lot of hiding behind their veils even when moving rapidly. One could speculate that this is intended to signify that the spirit of woman is taken by or hidden behind her accessories, but despite the assumptions and constraints imposed by the world around her, she will find a way to shine through and succeed.

Overall, I thought Salome's Daughters was a fine piece of choreography danced with great skill and sensuous passion.

Choreography: Nejla Yatkin. Music: A.R. Rahman and Lelonek. Voices: Kamilah Levens and Nejla Yatkin. Sound Arrangement: Mike Merrick, Denver Media Center. Lighting Design: Keith W. Rice. Costumes: Lara Kirksey. Dancers: Marceline Freeman, Susan Richardson, Carol L. McCoy, Rachael Ashley, An Whitbeck, Annie Gavino, Lisa Thomas.

The next dance presented in Act I was One Nation Under a Groove - Part 2/24 hours in Birmingham. I thought this was an interesting work that contained great dancing, at least one truly brilliant section, and important ideas.

This dance concerns the memory of coming of age in the 1960s at the time of the horrific Birmingham church bombing. An old woman remembers the innocence of a Sweet 16 party and the loss of innocence that happened a few days later. This work alternates between symbolic tableaux-esque sections and wild interpretations of 60s dance styles done to 60s popular music. The dance party numbers had a lot of talented ass-shaking. This statement isn't intended to be ironic. Their command of technique, especially isolations, was clear even as they were presenting dance that in its native habitat would have been rather free form.

The truly brilliant part of the dance was a section where a dancer slowly walks across the stage held back by a rope, held by two gloved dancers, that lengths as she struggles against it. She is struggling mightily to reach a forbidden scoop of ice cream, a scoop sitting at a whites only lunch counter. Instead of simply presenting the denials that were a part of segregation, the narration presents this idea on at least three levels: the denial itself and the struggle to overcome it, the realization that the object denied is not quite what it was made out to be and how this reflects on the society that denies it, and how the histories of the child and the father set the course for how each can respond. The narration would have been clear on its own, but combined with the bold image formed by the dancers on stage, the audience is likely to remember both the message and the nuance for quite some time. Considering that dance is normally an art form that has difficulty with narrative, this is even more of an accomplishment than it may seem at first glance.

If I have any critique of this dance, it was that sometimes it was unclear who was narrating. Sometimes it seemed like the narration was from a single person's perspective, and sometimes it seemed like it was multiple persons' perspectives on a single day. If multiple perspectives were intended, perhaps projecting each person's image on the backdrop might help clarify the intent. In any case, at most what ever steps that might be taken would be very minor tightening. On the other hand, since this work is called "Part 2", presumably there is a "Part 1", and perhaps seeing both together might make this criticism moot.

Overall, I liked the work and especially thought the ice cream section was a true gem.

Choreography: David Rousseve. Music: 1960s collage. Voices: David Rousseve, Cleo Parker Robinson, Marceline Freeman. Sound Arrangement: Denver Media Center. Lighting and Set Design: Keith W. Rice. Costume Design and Construction: Jane Nelson Rud (Phantom Productions). Special thanks: Tim Duffy and studio technicians. Dancers: Ensemble.

The first dance presented in Act II was Choros. This is a classic of modern dance choreographed by Katherine Dunham, but I tried to look at it as if it were new. To my eye it looked like a modern interpretation of a Mexican folk dance, with some Salsa, Samba and Flamenco thrown in. The pastiche of dance forms seemed to match the quilt like costumes. The dance was playful and very enjoyable. According to Annie Gavino, one of the dancers, Miss Dunham created this work while she was in Brazil and based it on Samba and other Brazilian dances. This is entirely possible since folk dances from different regions often have strong similarities. Regardless of the exact sources, I thought that the melding was both valid and successful. I would love to see the work used to help stir the pot on one of the long standing authenticity versus salon debates: imagine presenting Choros in the same program with a Brazilian Samba routine and an International Samba routine with practitioners of all three in the audience. The resulting discussion could be very interesting.

Choreography: Miss Katherine Dunham. Music: Vadico Gogliano. Lighting design: Keith Rice. Costume Design: John Pratt. Costumes courtesy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Dancers: Susan Richardson-Baylon, Lawrence Jackson, Annie Gavino, Asante I.

The next dance up was My Bahai. This was a pure Afro-Brazilian dance. Very compact. Very strong. Very devotional. Very passionate. This was a solo for Marceline Freeman. Both the choreography and her dancing of it were wonderful. She could have easily held the audience's rapt attention for twice as long.

Choreography: Cleo Parker Robinson. Music: Traditional Brazilian and Babatunde Olatunji. Costume design: Ronnie Whittaker / Carlos dos Santos. Lighting design: Anna Kaltenbach. Dancer: Marceline Freeman.

The final work of the evening was Divinities, which I had seen once before performed by Dance Brazil. At the time I said that Divinities was a dance worth seeing twice. Now that I have had the opportunity to see it twice, I stand by my original assessment.

This version started with dramatic lighting by Anna Kaltenbach. She used four cones of light descending from the heavens. This is a dance that uses African movement modalities to establish character. The dancers were in constant motion but also had the strength to be still within the motion. This is difficult enough to do in Ballroom and is all the more impressive when the dancers put their whole bodies into motion the way these dancers do. This was both as the general quality or fabric of the movement, and as sequences of discrete steps, where for instance, a dancer might show movement, stillness, and then a kick.

All of the dancers' African technique was strong and believable. Even the dancers whose ethnic origin is not immediately African. Since Divinities is a story about love and conflict among African gods, a white dancer might look out of place, but their skill was such that I think the audience saw the dancer first.

The choreography is continuously interesting. The fluid transitions from one formation to another are especially notable.

The program does provide a plot summary, but even so, sometimes the plot was hard to follow. The broad sweep was always clear, but the details and nuance sometimes got lost for me. Not only does this dance have the usual challenge dance has with narrative, but the dance has ten distinct main characters (if I counted correctly) and two of those were played by the same dancer. I would try adding narration, plus maybe a commemorative booklet the audience can purchase with pictures of each dancer in costume. If the audience reacts positively, keep the added layer. If it doesn't prove necessary, leave the dance as is. Even if you hadn't read the plot summary and knew nothing about the stories of the Orixas, you would know you were in the presence of a powerful force.

Choreographer: Carlos dos Santos Jr. Composer/Conductor: Marcelo Zarvos. Lighting Design: Anna Kaltenbach. Costume Design: Jane Nelson Rud. Costume Construction: Ronnie Whittaker. Dancers: Seiji Gammage, Maurice Watson, Michelle Knudsen, Lawrence Jackson, Carol McCoy, Lisa Thomas, Asante I, Jessica Pearson.

The Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble will be at the Joyce Theatre through August 23, 2003. If you don't already have a ticket, buy one. I think you will be glad you did.

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