By SUSAN BROILI
The American Dance Festival’s “Wondrous Women” program, on July 13 and July 14, 2018 at Durham, NC’s Carolina Theatre, gave five women dance makers a chance to go solo, each in her own inimitable way, in work that also drew from their various cultures: Chinese, Indian (India), African as well as American.
In Camille A. Brown’s “ink,” a solo excerpt from her trilogy about identity, three drummers (one was Atiba Morales, the other two unnamed in the program) performed live, two on traditional African Djembe drums.
Brown, who sat on a box, made a big, sweeping gesture with her right hand, fingers splayed, and then shook her hands so hard they blurred as though the rhythms were shooting out through her finger tips.
When she slumped over, a drummer, as though trying to coax her back, played light rhythms.
It must have worked because eventually she crouched and erupted into a flurry of movements then placed a white handkerchief onstage. In response, a percussionist answered with his drumming. And, then, Brown picked up the handkerchief and waved it as though to signal her intent in her trilogy to celebrate … “traditions of the African diaspora” [in order] “to reclaim African American narratives.”
“ink” completes Brown’s trilogy about identity that began with her 2013
“Mr. TOL E. RAnce,” which ADF audiences saw in July, 2013 and Duke University brings back in March, 2019, In it, Brown celebrates the humor and perseverance of black performers and also examines the stereotypical roles dominating current Black culture.
In her world premiere, “Ishvara,” Aparna Ramaswamy, created a new work from both her perspective as a first generation Indian American as well as influences of her home country of India where she was immersed in centuries-old traditions of dance, music and poetry in which nature and the Divine are intertwined.
And, because there is no dance without music in India’s culture, this work featured a new musical composition by Smt. Prema Ramamurthy and musical arrangement by Ramaswamy and her mother Ranee Ramaswany, who founded the Minneapolis-based company, Ragamala, in 1992.
The recording featured a four-member ensemble whose instruments included the violin as well as percussive instruments that included the use of voice and cymbals as well as the ancient Indian mridangam, a double-headed wooden drum, which according to Hindiumythology, was preferred by a number of deities including Ganesh, the remover of obstacles.
There were no obstacles to the poetry in motion that Aparna Ramaswamy embodied in her intensely present, joyful performance.
Early on, even her traditional apparel – red and orange top, bulbous pants gathered at the ankles and an accordion-pleated attachment at her waist, created a wow factor when she assumed a wide stance and and the accordion pleats dramatically fanned out.
Her hands also “spoke” with intricate articulations. Her arms undulated as her hands turned and swooped like birds. At one point, she drew attention to her extremely wide open, expressive eyes framed by splayed fingers over her face.
The bare-footed stamp of her feet added to the percussive sounds of the recorded music. And, her feet blurred as she took small, quick steps as the music sped, at breakneck pace, to the end of her performance.
In the world premiere of her solo, “The Invisible Entanglement,” Beijing’s Yabin Wang drew from her culture as well as from her experience as an American Dance Festival student in 2010 when, in the International Choreographers in Residence program, she performed in the premiere of “Sepia” by Russian choreographer Tatiana Baganova.
“It opened up a whole new world to me. My background was in Chinese classical dance,” she said, of that experience, at the post-performance talk.
Recorded music for her solo featured both Song Zhao on cello and Du Dapeng on Guqin, an ancient Chinese seven-stringed instrument that the musician plucks.
Her new solo opened with a modern look as, wearing a knee-length, black dress and knee guards, her hair long and dark, she stood, back to the audience, on a smoke-filled stage lit by rays of light. She swayed, head down, hair covering her face. To the cataclysmic whine of Song Zhao’s cello and wordless, ethereal-sounding voices, she calmly sat and pulled her long hair into a ponytail.
In other moves, she slowly revolved in a spotlight, crouched close to the stage floor then softly collapsed. At one point, arms crossed and held close to her chest, she seemed to be struggling against herself.
In partial darkness on the stage floor, her movements were somewhat obscured on purpose it turned out so that she could work some transformative magic by donning a jacket with extremely long sleeves that cascaded to the floor when she stood up. She then proceeded, with vigorous arm movements, to whip and undulate the long sleeves to create patterns that were mesmerizing. In doing so, she emulated a dramatic, ancient form of Chinese dance that incorporates long, colorful ribbons or sleeves. It proved a great way to end her solo.
For her world premiere of “Phase 4: In God’s Design We Trust,” Brooklyn-born Rhapsody James took a multi-media approach for the four phases of her creative life told through spoken word, large, colorful backdrops and video footage as well as some of her signature, fusion-style Street Jazz moves.
For “Phase 1: Creative Birth,” an explosive sun burst appeared on the backdrop and also the reminder that “The Gift Is Nothing Without Work.”
For Phase Two: “The Confident Gift,” bright, many-colored swirls filled the screen. For “The Wrong Turn” section of this phase, the scowling faces of black men appeared on the backdrop. James, bent-over, eyes rolled back, acted as though she was looking for a way out. Then she violently shook her body.
“Phase Three: “The Temptation,” began with James making weeping motions as she stood with a microphone and then offered a comforting thought: “When you are lost, you can be found.”
Then, for “Phase 4: “In God We Trust,” James, sitting in a chair, offered an affirmation of “trusting in God’s design – that you are where you are meant to be.”
As if in answer to God’s design, manifested in nature, we saw, on the backdrop, a breathtaking beautiful filmed scene of rays of light on ocean water and then a shore line and water swirling back out to sea.
In the post-performance talk, James said: “This is the first time I have ever done a solo in my entire career” and that she had found the process interesting. She initially earned a reputation choreographing work in the commercial dance industry in which she began as lead choreographer for the NBA New Jersey Nets Dance Team and also appeared as a principal dancer in Busta Rhymes’ music video “Put Your Hands Where Your Eyes Can See.” James has also earned a reputation as a teacher of hip hop and is also known as the “Queen of Street Jazz.”
Michelle Dorrance rounded out the evening, which also marked her American Dance Festival debut, with the world premiere of “thenow” to music by Colin Stetson and Sarah Newfield. That Dorrance received cheers from the audience before she started dancing came as no surprise because the Chapel Hill native has performed here many times both as a member of Gene Medler’s North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble and numerous guest appearances as a professional hoofer. The hometown crowd has also followed her meteoric rise as a star in the professional tap world with a host of honors that include Bessie Awards and selection as a 2015 MacArthur Fellow. She’s even appeared on The Late Show to teach host Stephen Colbert some tap steps.
Dorrance has earned a reputation for her innovations that have expanded what tap can be. And, the “Wondrous Women’ program was no exception.
She began “thenow” in the dark, perhaps her way of encouraging the audience to listen to the percussive sounds she made with her white, laced up, tap shoes. Microphones set up in a circle close to the stage floor even picked up the initial sound of her walking as well as how the tap sounds slurred as she picked up speed. Then, she sped up so much her legs were a blur. Even when she hit the fourth gear of breakneck speed, each tap, crisply articulated, could still be heard.
At one point – and this is where I remember it happening – stage lights came on as center stage, profile to the audience, Dorrance wind-milled her arms as she leaned forward. In her next dramatic move, she resembled an exclamation mark as she balanced on the toes of her tap shoes. Once again, she accelerated to the point that the rhythms of her feet rippled through her body.
Finally, a flurry of motion – I was going to say like a fast-moving train – only she was barreling backwards.
Little did we know while watching her performance that Dorrance had found it quite a challenge to choreograph a completely set work. “It’s very rare I’ll choreograph a solo,” she said in the post-performance talk. “Tap, at the root, is an improvisational form. Gene Medler – he had us improvise,” she added.
So, Dorrance said that her biggest challenge in the performance of her solo was to stick to the structure she had created.