can leave your gumboots on: dancers in Black Burlesque
By Mae G. Banner
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
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,
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
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.