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Loving and Leaving
By Mae G. Banner

Souloworks/Andrea E. Woods & Dancers
The Egg, Jan. 31

Andrea Woods is a gatherer. She collects people’s words and gestures, records them on videotape, and, with her six-member company Souloworks, weaves them into dances like Love Letters, which had its premiere performance Friday night at the Egg.

Love Letters is a suite of a dozen fragments, shards of oral history refined into dance. Full of good movement ideas, but muddied by some distracting video and a too in-your-face onstage jazz quartet, the work could use some editing.

Still, the dance has promise. One solid contributor was Delora Bascombe of Albany, who joined the dancers onstage to read her “Dear Delora” while a vivacious dancer soloed as her alter ego. Words and movement fused when the two walked off companionably together, Bascombe’s hand on the dancer’s shoulder.

Other dancers took turns sitting at a small table downstage right to read all kinds of letters: parental chats, longings from a distance, regrets over a broken romance. The letters are full of heartfelt imagery. It’s easy to see why people had to save them.

Woods dances to a long, gossipy family note laced with reminders to maintain good behavior. She responds gesturally to mama’s cautions, looking back over her shoulder or raising a warning finger. In “Dear Peg,” Christopher Campbell’s tall balletic body draws in and crumples, embodying the hurt and puzzlement of a man whose lover has quit him.

Love Letters, with its simple set piece of a small window hung with white cotton curtains, is meant to be personal, intimate. However, too often, my eye was drawn away from the dancers by the hyper movements of musician-composer David Pleasant and his quartet, whose polyrhythmic music tended to override the choreography rather than support it. Pleasant segued from swing to ragtime to Caribbean to bubbling jitterbug music—all exciting, but better relegated to the orchestra pit than onstage.

Woods should have seen the visual clutter created by the quartet, because she has a fine sense of composition. Sweet Willie Mae, her tribute to the great blues singer Willie Mae Thornton, was a triumph that set the six dancers into unexpected, satisfying sculptural groupings.

Three remarkable old Thornton recordings moved the dance from the weary but tough-minded “Heavy Load” to the Memphis backbeat of “Catfish Blues” and the leaping finale, “Ball N’ Chain.” The music and the movement grow in tandem from the spare guitar line and minimal, weighted steps of “Heavy Load” to the brash horn and drums that power the shuddering jumps of “Ball N’ Chain.”

The blues tell of leaving. In a brilliant stroke, Woods weights the stage with worn suitcases that dancers carry on, rest upon, or stack up in small monuments. People and suitcases make odd, jagged shapes in space, setting clumps of dancers at oblique angles to each other. At one point, the dancers lie on their backs with their suitcases on their bellies, like gravestones.

Sweet Willie Mae makes a lot out of a little, evoking a wry but determined spirit. With its imaginative entrances and exits, its fearless use of a line of dancers with their backs to the audience, and its final image of the group gathered in the center on a platform of suitcases and letting their arms dance beyond the end of the music, it says, “My story is your story.”

Woods, a willow wand of a dancer with long arms and legs and a crowning Afro, opened the concert with a solo, Legos Lullaby. Set to recorded original music and chanting by Philip Hamilton, it is fluid and earthy at once, full of quick shifts in tempo and attack from staccato to legato.

In a wine-red tunic and slit trousers, Woods is a commanding figure with a strong undulating torso and an active back. She frequently dances at a three-quarter angle that shows off that powerful back. Then, turning toward us, she flexes and curves her arms, snapping them out straight and then gathering in the space with gestures that gather in the audience as well.

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