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The Black Choreographers Festival
11 Feb 2008

Off and Running
The Black Choreographers Festival
Here and Now 2008
Dances by Robert Moses, Reginald Ray-Savage, Linda Goodrich, Paco Gomes, Shakiri, Deborah Vaughan
Laney College Theater, Oakland, CA
Feb 11, 2008

© VoiceofDance.com 2008

Maia Siani of Savage Jazz Dance Company. Photo by Kimara Dixon.

The annual transbay Black Choreographers Festival, now in its fourth edition, may not be the most polished or innovative of the narrow-focus celebrations that dot the local dance calendar. But it’s often the most welcoming and most animated.

Ticket holders to the opening of this year’s BCF were greeted with a splendid change of venue in the guise of Oakland’s Laney College Theater, a vast improvement over previous seasons. They were feted, too, with a sampling of African and African American edibles, as well as with musicians serenading them before the concert Friday (Feb. 8) and during intermission. The introductions of co-producers Kendra Kimbrough Barnes and Laura Elaine Ellis were brief and to the point.

One sensed a community spirit here, in the finest sense of the word. And that was all to the good, because the fare on display ran the gamut from not-quite professional to standard performance art, some of which foreswore altogether anything that could be called dance. (The program content, please note, will change dramatically during the remaining two weeks of the festival.)

Any East Bay dance festival, black or chartreuse, probably could not exist without a visit from the Savage Jazz Dance Company; Friday, the troupe almost tore up the joint. Reginald Ray-Savage, who now runs the dance program at the Oakland High School of the Arts, specializes in training promising, unpolished dancers and on Friday, their verve shone through a couple of Ray-Savage’s recent works. A brace of the choreographer’s muses, Alison Hurley, with her impressive extensions and lush descents, and the more compact, mercurial Maia Siani, lavished their talents on Ray-Savage’s Adagio for Strings (yes, the one by Samuel Barber, heard on recording).

The choreography, however, simply bewilders. It is far too thrusting and spiky for this intensely lyrical music, and Ray-Savage does not clarify the relationship between the two principals and the four-person corps which enters near the end. The same dancemaker’s 2004 Ritus traded in high energy and simplified patterns that flattered the dancers. Ray-Savage has, happily, found a couple of superior men for his chronically male-starved troupe. Omat Carmical and Jarrod Mayo are worth watching. The other performers included Brittney Wassermann, Knia Ward, Sabrina Baranda and Tessa Cruz.

The other group dances left less favorable impressions. The Bay Area premiere of Deborah Vaughan’s Madness (an excerpt from her Cross Currents), we are told, explores the legacy of the African American women who settled in the Bay Area early in the last century. What it looked like was a foot-stamping, balance-testing essay for nine healthy, exuberant dancers, who caught the percussive urgency of the three-man drummer battery at the side of the stage. As a program closer, this served well, but it was impossible to tell how this extract might fit into a larger work.

Linda S. Goodrich’s Ancestral Memories (Oakland premiere) was the contribution, I believe (the program handout was not clear), of Sacramento/Black Art of Dance and seemed of lesser quality. The opening and closing tableaux, with dancers huddled, arms raised, fingers splayed, looked too much like Alvin Ailey’s Revelations for comfort and the group essay that unfurled in between barely registers. The seven performers, to put it charitably, were not of professional caliber.

Of the three talk numbers, the sole premiere, Paco Gomes’ Do you know what color God is, was a preachy but effective vehicle for Charles Gushue. Dressed like a court jester down on his luck, the performer, his face cork-blackened, pours water from a beaker into glasses lined up in a row. The liquid changes color, depending on the glass; he then pours the mess, now a ruddy brown, back into the beaker, a way of telling us that the world would be a better place if we were all the same hue. An oral plea for acceptance, drawn from the United Nations Declaration for Human Rights, ends the piece. It might have been dynamite 30 years ago.

Far more compelling, indeed, downright electrifying was Shakiri’s Mary, Boy Called Boy, Isaac, Naola and the Baby, a monologue intended for insertion in Joanna Haigood’s site-specific Invisible Wings. Shakiri launched her oration advertising shoes for sale, but it was soon apparent that she is instrumental in protecting fleeing slaves on the Underground Railroad. The words tumbled almost recklessly from Shakiri’s mouth as this diminutive performer scurried across the stage. Eventually those words resolved into rhythmic patterns that seem to fuse with the movement. If only all talking dance routines were this effective.

Dance does not figure in the program opener, Robert Moses’ The Wall, wherein the artist and Aleta Hayes converse for 10 minutes on why black women receive no respect. I didn’t get it the first time I saw it, and illumination didn’t strike on Friday, either, when the miking was off. To these eyes, a waste of Moses’ considerable talents.

BCF moves across the bay for performances Friday through Sunday at Project Artaud Theater. Among the guest artists will be three superb tap dancers—Jason Samuels Smith, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Chloe Arnold. A New Wave Choreographers’ Showcase will be presented at San Francisco’s Dance Mission Theater, Feb. 23-24. For complete information, including master classes and symposia, visit http://www.bcfhereandnow.com or call (415) 863-9834.

Allan Ulrich