12 Feb 2007
Much to celebrate in black dance festival
Rachel Howard, Special to The Chronicle
Monday, February 12, 2007
The Black Choreographers Festival kicked off its two-weekend, two-city run in Oakland on Friday with a big opening-night audience ranging from age 7 to 70 crowding the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts. This was a community celebration, and there was much to celebrate. The work was uneven, but flashes of virtuosity were never far away.
Los Angeles tappers Jason Samuels Smith and Chloe Arnold traded riffs with a tight jazz duo and each other. Smith is a rag-limbed prodigy able to trace astonishing swoops of sound with his slides and jolt you alert with a stomping backbeat; Arnold is a fleet-footed lady who knows how to hang with the boys. There was a lesson in one-upmanship: Improvisation is choreography, too. Their unison finale brought down the house.
A similar lesson could be glimpsed in the seeming spontaneity of Robert Henry Johnson, a Bay Area-born and -trained wunderkind now long grown up and seen far too infrequently on local stages. His "Zulu Songs," revised from 1988, appears to pour from his silken upper body, explosions of ballet steps melting into African rhythms.
Only a body that speaks so many movement languages that fluently could stream them so fluidly, and as in most Johnson performances, there was no telling the dancer from the dance. "Zulu Songs" cast an unbroken spell.
The rest of the evening offered mixed results. Now in its third year, the Black Choreographers Festival is still refining what it is and what it wants to say. Its predecessor, Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, was designed to proclaim that black dancemakers do much more than traditional African, or Ailey-style modern. Fortunately today that message no longer needs such forceful underlining, and blessed with the wealth of traditional dance here in the Bay Area, co-producers Laura Elaine Ellis and Kendra Kimbrough Barnes have drawn freely from it.
But the professionalism is not always of the utmost. Afro-Brazilian choreographer Paco Gomes has generated local buzz in recent years, and watching the pulsing torsos and wagging arms of 2005's "Offering," one caught glimpses of why. But Gomes' seven female dancers are less skilled in the modern dance techniques called on in the long, prayerful prologue, and his spatial patterns can look college-concert-like.
Two other choreographers wrangled with the challenges of using fusion vocabularies. Mahealani Uchiyama's "Pahupahu" merged Tahitian with West African, her grass-skirted women shifting with zeal from hip swivels to foot stamps.
Asatu Musunama Hall, one of the Black Choreographers Festival's mentor program participants, was the gut-wrenching soloist at the center of her "Afriketè." Based in Afro-Cuban, this spiritual journey paraded too many costume changes, but the dancers were fierce and joyous.
Reginald Ray-Savage's Savage Jazz Dance Company slunk through three new works. "Exhale" featured Alison Hurley in a very naughty costume: sheer black tights, with a black skirt hiked just above her butt. She also had a wonderful, less exposed, duet with Maia Siani in "Antineosis," while Christine Khalil showed off her sensuous extensions in a tryst with Antoine Hunter.
A final hot tip: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's notable New York troupe Urban Bush Women takes the stage Thursday -- but the Bay Area's own Fua Dia Congo (Friday) and Diamano Coura (Saturday) are wonders in their own right.
The Black Choreographers Festival: Here and Now: Thursday through Sunday at ODC Theater, 3153 17th St., San Francisco. Tickets: $10-$15; (415) 863-9834 or www.ticketweb.com. The festival also includes master classes, family matinees, a symposium and a Next Wave Choreographers Showcase; visit www.bcfhereandnow.com for full info.
This article appeared on page B - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle