Rhythm and Blues

Classic Arts Features   Rhythm and Blues
The Kennedy Center celebrates African American dance in a star-studded festival next month.

Arms flying, the sinuous dancers leap across the stage, translating emotion into thrilling movement in Ronald K. Brown's Come Ye, a tribute to the late singer Nina Simone, and one of the many exciting offerings in the five-day festival Masters of African American Choreography at the Kennedy Center, April 20-25.

Heir to the traditions of Katherine Dunham and Alvin Ailey, Brown takes as his influences African, Caribbean, modern, hip-hop, and club dance to create an exhilarating fusion of styles. His musical choices are equally eclectic, running from James Brown and Duke Ellington to Latin love songs, Afro pop, and gospel. Like great jazz songs, his dances engulf you with their joyful rhythms and raw emotion.

Brown is just one of a number of remarkable black choreographers now electrifying audiences around the world. These gifted men and women, who also include Garth Fagan, Bill T. Jones, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris, Dianne McIntyre, Tamango, and many others, create dances that touch the soul and lift the spirit. Driven to communicate life's pain and joy, they offer us the healing powers of dance.

While there has always been a wealth of talented black American dance artists, it took pioneers Alvin Ailey, founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, and Arthur Mitchell, who established Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, to give them greater visibility. Until then African American dancers often found themselves disregarded, patronized, and rejected by mainstream American companies and theaters.

But long before Ailey and Mitchell offered black dancers and choreographers platforms for their talents, Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, both anthropologists and choreographers, began the fight for recognition. In the 1930s and 1940s, they created works referring to the African Diaspora, employing African-derived movements learned in the Caribbean and Africa.

Primus drew her subjects from a variety of black cultures and figures, ranging from African stonecutters to Caribbean religious practices to rural life in the American South. A star on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals like Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, Dunham brought a new theatricality and a touch of show business to modern dance, making it more accessible.

Dunham also fought fire with fire. She not only exposed discrimination in her work, she protested it in her daily life. She followed a routine: Before she booked her company into a venue, she'd find out if it was segregated. If there was even the possibility, she'd get in touch with the local civil rights organizations in that city and tell them to ask blacks to buy tickets. If blacks weren't in the audience, the show wouldn't go on.

One night in Lexington, Kentucky, Dunham's strategy failed and she found herself looking out on a solid white crowd. At the end of the program, when the applause died down, she announced that she was pleased her company had been so well received, but she wouldn't perform there again‹unless the theater was desegregated. Shortly thereafter, the theater opened to blacks.

In the 1950s, Dunham's and Primus's fame paved the way for newcomers like choreographers Donald McKayle and Talley Beatty, whose works fused African and Caribbean styles with aspects of the American black experience. Propelled by the civil rights movement, the momentum from the 1950s carried over dramatically into the next decade. Ailey created his 1960 masterpiece Revelations to traditional spirituals. With its striking images from African American life, its evocative spirituals, and its lyrical and boisterous choreography, Revelations ranks as one of the most popular dances of all time. The black choreographic renaissance of today was underway.

Before Garth Fagan choreographed The Lion King, he had run his own adventurous, well-regarded company for more than 25 years. A rebel, he decided to hire untrained dancers and invent his own technique when he formed his troupe. "I liked the idea of combining African-Caribbean movement with ballet and modern techniques," he says. "If I'd started with dancers versed in traditional styles, it would have been tough for them to accept what I was doing. I was inventing a new language."

The choreographers highlighted in the Kennedy Center's festival all believe that the body speaks as eloquently as words but their dances vary as widely as do their personalities and backgrounds. In 1982 Bill T. Jones founded his company with his late partner Arnie Zane. The duo created a radical style of dance theater which, while technically inventive, also confronted issues like race, class, and sexuality. "I hoped to use the language of dance to participate in the world of ideas," Jones says.

He and Zane gained recognition as "new wave" or "post-modern" choreographers whose large-scale, abstract collaborations, were visually and spatially altered by contemporary sets, costumes, and body paintings. Some of his most celebrated creations are evening-length works, including Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land and Still/Here. "My vision for my company and as an artist," Jones says, "is of a group of disparate people putting aside their differences to achieve a higher goal."

Certain names constantly come up when talking about black American dance, particularly Dunham's. Trained in her technique, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the artistic director of Urban Bush Women, loves telling stories through dance, just as Dunham did. Since establishing her New York company in 1984, Zollar has choreographed more than 35 works that combine dance, song, and spoken text.

Her funny and poetic tribute to music, C# Street‹Bb Avenue, the wrenching Shelter, about the plight of homeless people, and Batty Moves, a work satirizing pompous social mores by celebrating black women's buttocks, have become staples of the Ailey repertory. "I try to get across the great beauty in individuality," Zollar says, "the way we are created in all sizes and shapes, and with very different ways of going about life."

Like tap dancers, hip-hop artists choreograph from the moment they start dancing. They don't wait to form companies; they have their own bodies. "I started dancing because that's what everybody did," says Rennie Harris, who has been extending the boundaries of hip-hop ever since establishing his Philadelphia-based dance troupe Puremovement in 1992. "The idea was to come up with the best routines." In works like Endangered Species Harris turned the virtuosity of hip-hop into beautiful, well constructed choreography.

Why hip-hop? "Because it's our one form of culture that's built on being real," he says. "There are no limits on what you do or say. You have a voice. It's no different from jazz or rock 'n' roll or R&B or blues, all the American musical forms that have dealt with real human experience. The voice continues to come back to remind us that we're free. Maybe in another ten years, hip-hop won't be relevant. It might be co-opted and contained, and lose its freeness. But right now, it satisfies my need not to be defined. When I'm dancing, I feel like I'm giving 120 percent and that I'm connected to something higher than myself. I'm in that zone where dancing feels very much like being in church."

Harris and these other remarkable black choreographers generously ask us to join in their exultation.

Valerie Gladstone writes frequently about the arts.

Recommended Reading: