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You can leave your gumboots on: dancers in Black Burlesque (revisited).

Successfully Merging
By Mae G. Banner

Black Burlesque (revisited)
The Egg, Oct. 18

The urge to merge drives many black choreographers. Looking to distinguish their work from that of other modern-dance companies and to speak with their own full voices, Garth Fagan, Reggie Harris, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (of Urban Bush Women), and Tamango (of Urban Tap) are among those who’ve melded modern moves with Caribbean and African sources.

Following this urge, New York City-based choreographer Reggie Wilson and his Fist & Heel Performance Group began collaborating almost 20 years ago with Noble Douglas and her dance company from Trinidad and with Thomeki Dube and his singing-dancing Black Umfolosi troupe from Zimbabwe. Dancers from each company traveled to work with their colleagues on each troupe’s home ground, and found startling correspondences among their traditional dances.

Members of the three groups showed the fruits of this collaboration in their joint performance, Black Burlesque (revisited), last Friday at the Egg in Albany. What came through was the continuing presence of the past, even in today’s club dancing.

The show was one long, winding thread, knotting and looping, turning back on itself to retrace the path that links African, Caribbean and black-American dance and spirit. A rural Southern ring shout would segue into an African clapping and dancing game, then into a shimmying couples dance. A stomping juba would be followed by a South African gumboot dance with intricate rhythmic stepping and body-slapping.

At first, it seemed the performers were dancing in their different national accents, but, as the evening unfolded, they became one group of swaying, jiving dancers. Differences in their backgrounds melted away.

The Albany audience was the first to see Black Burlesque (revisited), which was still being polished for its official world premiere yesterday (Wednesday, Oct. 22) at the Dance Theater Workshop in New York. It’s clear that, at this point, Wilson is so enamored of all the connections he’s found between Mississippi Delta dancing and its precursors that he can’t bear to leave out a single move. However, the work would gain shape and energy from some serious editing.

There are exciting and beautiful set-pieces that I hope Wilson keeps in the mix. The vigorous male gumboot dancing is a crowd-pleaser. The old rural dances and games, accompanied by washboard and harmonica blues, are sweet visualizations of recordings in the Library of Congress and Smithsonian collections. And a languorous work for two female couples who lie down together and dance only by flexing and stretching their bare feet reminded me of the movie Daughters of the Dust.

Some of the singing, especially the yearning gospel songs, illuminates a people’s spirit and the tightness of a community. The easy segues from American to African songs and chants carry that spirit across time and space. Everyone from the three companies sang in each other’s languages, often in angelic, meditative harmonies.

Choreographically, Wilson and Douglas have a nice sense of space. They use the whole stage, often unreeling slow processions that start on a diagonal line and then wind around the perimeter of the dancing ground. They also like repetition—sometimes, too much—of a ritualized dance phrase. Entrances and exits are always surprising as one dance morphs seamlessly into the next.

Simple costumes in muted browns, tans and blues mixed elements of rural Southern, Trinidadian, and Zimbabwean fashion. This quiet harmony established the low-key nature of the production and was a subtle way of saying, “We’re all linked.”

The backdrop said it, too. A huge piece of burlap, torn and seamed like a crazy-quilt, draped behind the dancers and changed color with the changing stage light. It looked equally at home with Delta mud and high-life club. However, two disco balls left hanging throughout the performance were distracting.

The dancers were of all shapes and sizes, so their individual qualities lent interest to the often repetitive dances. One woman, a haunting singer and sexy dancer, was soft and round as a sugar bun. A tall, muscular man swung across the stage in a sensuous, butt-swiveling club dance that had women in the audience murmuring appreciatively.

The “Black Burlesque” project differs from the pioneering work of dancer-anthropologists Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus, who researched indigenous dances in Haiti and West Africa, respectively, and restaged them for the theater. For Wilson, three streams of dance flow into one big river. He invites us to ride.

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