11 Feb 2008
Review: Savage the star of BCF's opening night
Rachel Howard, Chronicle Dance Correspondent
Monday, February 11, 2008
For the past three years, it's been good to have the Black Choreographers Festival on the scene, but it hasn't been clear whom the festival's performances are for. Was BCF, picking up where the defunct Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century left off, trying to stimulate another national dialogue on race in dance? Instilling local pride? Pitching itself to aspiring African American dancemakers or to a more general dance audience? If the latter, why were the performances so frustratingly uneven?
At Friday's opening of the festival's fourth annual installment, BCF's purpose seemed to crystallize in a word co-founders Laura Elaine Ellis and Kendra Kimbrough Barnes use a lot: community. And BCF has built a wide and wonderful community indeed. Opening at Oakland's Laney College Theater, the festival moves on to second and third weekends at San Francisco's Project Artaud Theater and Dance Mission Theater, which - along with ODC Theater - are all sponsors. There'll be symposia, family matinees, an art exhibition and a master class with sensational tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith, out from New York.
All of this is tremendous for the community. For the average dancegoer at one of BCF's concerts, though, it means a huge range in quality. The bad news is you'll have to sit through sub-par work to get to the good stuff, like Smith's appearance Friday and Saturday, when the festival moves to Project Artaud (look forward, too, to the roof-raising West African stampings of Oakland troupe Diamano Coura). The upside is the chance to find standout choreographers whose work should be seen far more often. And at Friday's opening, the clear winner in that category was Reginald Ray-Savage (commonly known as Reginald Savage).
Savage has led his Savage Jazz Dance Company in Oakland since 1992, but it's never broken out much beyond a cash-strapped local season. That should change. Not only is Savage a master teacher, producing taut, controlled dancers as well trained as any on the Bay Area modern dance scene. But he's also a fine choreographer.
He proved this in two pieces that broke from his usual mission statement - "Not jazz dance. Dances to jazz music." - to take on intense classical scores. This being Savage, though, the look was sexy, from the sculpted sultry postures and teasing deep plies to the women's V-neck leotards.
In "Adagio for Strings," to the well-known Samuel Barber music, majestic Alison Hurley and Maia Siani spilled over one another, forced-arch feet causing them to tumble like waterfalls, Hurley slinking across the stage in deep panther-like lunges. Savage is a deft formalist, and he uses it in the service of drama, an arm curved overhead like a sheltering wing evolving into an urgent propeller. What happened when Hurley suddenly gestured as though to pull something up from the ground and toss it in Siani's face? I didn't know, but I certainly wanted to think about it.
"Ritus," to the insistent music of Abdullah Ibrahim, was more ambitious and even more intriguing, playing Hurley and Siani off an ensemble of shorter, fleet women (and one powerhouse man, Jarrod Mayo). Again, those forced-arch feet became much more than a jazz cliche, recurring with mounting meaning. Spatially, Savage was at his best here, sweeping groups in and out with storm-like energy.
Alas, nothing else Friday rose to Savage's level. Robert Moses, the biggest name on the program, brought "The Wall" with Aleta Hayes, in which they sit at a table and talk about race - it was badly miked and awkwardly delivered. Shakiri contributed an excerpt she created for "Invisible Wings," Joanna Haigood's work about the Underground Railroad; "Mary, Boy Called Boy, Issac, Naola and the Baby" was passionately well-acted, but it didn't add much to a harrowing yet familiar story of a slave family on the run.
Deborah Vaughan and Dimensions Dance Theater flooded the stage with flowing red silk and her fierce combination of African and modern dance in "Madness"; it's always a pleasure to see Ellis, especially moving with such spirit (and a treat to hear fine live drumming), but "Madness" could have benefited from more variation in intensity. Linda S. Goodrich's "Ancestral Memories" came off like a college-level composition assignment, with student-quality performers.
The most egregious inclusion, though, was Paco Gomes' "Do You Know What Color God Is?" A white soloist in blackface, Charles Gushue, poured black, white, red and yellow liquids together to make brown, then gasped some quotations from the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. This was cliched moralizing about race in a festival with the partly realized potential to make us think so much more richly about it.
Black Choreographers Festival: Continues Fri.-Sun. Project Artaud Theater, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets: $10-$20. (415) 863-9834, www.odctheater.org. For full festival information, including a Next Wave Choreographers Showcase, symposia, workshops and master classes, go to www.bcfhereandnow.com.