OUT OF THE BOX/INTO THE WORLD at DIW
”OUT OF THE BOX/INTO THE WORLD”
Fabian Barnes Black Box Theater
Dance Institute of Washington
3400 14th Street N.W.
April 30 – May 1, 2022
By LUELLA CHRISTOPHER, PhD
Four DMV choreographers – Sylvana Christopher, Stacey Yvonne Claytor, Roxann Morgan Rowley, and Malcolm Shute – collaborated in one of the first performances of freshly created and repertory pieces to be showcased at Dance Institute of Washington’s new theater space in the Columbia Heights 14th Street corridor. DIW is often described as the chief minority-led pre-professional dance equity organization in Washington, D.C. The theater is located in a state-of-the-art building that features bold lighting and enough room for an intimate crowd of about 100 people. Both nights of the April 30th to May 1st choreography collaboration sold out to observably intergenerational audiences.
The evening was the brainstorm of Malcolm Shute, artistic director of Human Landscape Dance and adjunct professor at Towson University for nearly two decades. Joining forces with him were Sylvana Christopher, artistic director of SylviDances and co-founder emerita of Glade Dance Collective; Stacey Yvonne Claytor, CEO/founder/director at C4 Performing Arts, George Washington University; and Roxann Morgan Rowley, founder of New Reflex Dance Collective and professor at George Mason University.
Narratives, including the titles of the works, other identifying information, and even names of the dancers who performed them were noticeably absent on both nights, leaving audience members somewhat befuddled as to what they were watching. Curiously, none of the choreographers introduced their works, as is often customary even when attendees are handed a program on their way into the theater.
An apparent decision to “go green” had prompted the performance organizers to print only a handful of programs, with the caveat that viewers could take a screenshot of a digital master planted on a bookshelf in the hallway outside the theater. Most chose not to bother. It may not have mattered to the many friends and family members of the dancers in attendance who made their presence known by enthusiastic bravos, hoots and whistles. (Let’s hear it for interactive communing between choreographers, performers, and audiences!)
As a dance scholar and critic, I was initially stymied by the information gap in presenting “Out of the Box/Into the World”. Luckily, I was offered one of the few paper programs after the April 30th performance. Repeat attendance at the May 1st showing also greatly enhanced my understanding of the seven works. Not everyone enjoys that luxury.
By then, it occurred to me that inventing one’s own narratives for these contempomodern works was certainly acceptable, though not necessarily the intention of all or any of the choreographers. It seems that a little guidance (at least basic information such as names of participants like the dancers, as well as composers and performers of the music used) is crucial given the wide array of experiences brought by audiences to such an event. I even imagined something visual – perhaps the projected “surtitles” common to opera – elevated at one side of the theater space to introduce each piece. Let’s test my hypothesis next!
In “Frayed” (2009) by choreographer Roxann Morgan Rowley, this writer envisaged the final sequence of the dream ballet in “Oklahoma” – ingeniously updated. The five dancers (Sara Goldman, Brittany Leasure, Grace Mayer, Victoria Unterberger, Denise Urban) moved in a symphony of swirls enhanced by long bridal-like white gowns, each one a little different. Their arms jut forward from the shoulders as do legs from the hips in parallel positions. They loop, twist, and circle frenetically. Moves and styles immediately evoked choreographers from the dawning of American modern dance – including Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, and even Paul Taylor.
Consider once again the story from the pioneering dream ballet in Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1955 movie musical ”Oklahoma”. The character Laurey’s subconscious serves as a reflection of her bride-to-be status. She enters the stage in her wedding dress. Instead of floating euphorically, however, Laurey finds herself drenched in blood. Her chief suitor, the cowboy Curly, has just killed Jud, a farmhand and rival for the young woman’s affections.
Laurey’s melodious soliloquy is poignant: “Out of my dreams and into your arms I long to fly; I will come as evening comes to woo a waiting sky…” The difference in Rowley’s fairly discernible narrative as suggested by her own costumes – even without the benefit of program notes – surrounds the fact that one girl stands apart from the other four, if only briefly. Then the music changes from allegro to adagio and the lighting becomes pinkish and softer.
Photo by Aminta Taylor.
In a startling finale, all five “brides-to-be” rush toward the audience, apparently jumping to their death. I am beginning to think that the narrative suggested by their movements might also work in a dystopian movie similar to ”The Handmaid’s Tale”. And, while created over a decade ago, a “pandemic” spin could even reverse Rowley’s narrative to include the number of grooms, young or old, tragically lost in the last three years to brides just before the wedding ceremony. Music for “Frayed” was rendered serendipitously for this writer by The String Quartet to Dream Theater: “Overture 1928” and Hells Kitchen.
Easier to decipher as to intent was “Together/Alone – Section 1 – ‘I’m Sorry for Your Loss’”. In this less disturbing of the two pieces offered by choreographer Stacey Yvonne Claytor, the audience bears witness to an ever-enlarging group of mourners in a church or chapel. The staging of the piece utilizes projections of colored stained glass on a dark backdrop. It’s almost the focal point of the choreography as the collage begins to drip and fall apart in various shapes and sizes.
Another key prop management tool by Claytor consists of four benches or pews. Seven dancers – Stefanie Quinones Bass, Celine Berthaud (May 1st] or Shanna Lim (April 30th), Virginia Driggers, Carrie Monger, Zena Nguon, Hermione Rhones, and Rachel Snow, all attired in somber black – move through heightened stages of grief, alternately tussling with and consoling each other. They grovel, stagger and slide onto the floor, quiver, grasp their knees, wrap themselves over and around benches, sit in stillness, and gradually move all but one bench to the back.
Photo by Sylvana Christopher.
Gongs ring toward the end of the piece. Whispers percolate among the women that the choreographer may have intended to be obscure and inaudible. Confusion over distinctions among the mourners thus remains, yet sympathy from the audience is generated. In the final analysis, it’s quite a strong theater piece, supported by germane, stunning visuals. Music is by Max Richter – “Dream 3 (in the midst of my life)” with Motion Graphics by LAS Graphic Designer.
Continuing the evening’s pervasive theme of life, love, and loss is choreographer Malcolm Shute’s “Cascade”. Set to the familiar and repetitive but dirge-like melody of Tomaso Albinoni’s “Adagio in g minor” (recorded by Miguel Del Oro Orchestra), this feat of human engineering is notable for its structural complexity and difficulty of execution. Four dancers (Susan Donham, Roxann Morgan Rowley, Alexander Short, and Shute himself) are stacked in an elongated tower. Slow rolls allow them to separate and return to the configuration. Some of the dancers use arm extensions, while others fold into or crawl over each other. When extended, arms are always sculpting.
The level of the tower finally starts to rise as one slithers under the others and they slowly begin to separate again. Hands on the floor show long splayed fingers. At one point, arms cascade down and one dancer pushes the other. A domino effect finally overtakes the scene and the dancers wind up separately on the floor.
Photo by Aminta Taylor.
One should be wary of construing “Cascade” as a discrete example of Shute’s established reputation for contact improvisation. After viewing his powerful piece for two nights in succession, this writer concludes that the slow-moving and ever-morphing tower is indeed carefully if perhaps loosely choreographed. As for the emotions it inspires, they run the gamut from loss and indifference among the characters (whether human, animal or some aspect of nature such as waterfalls) to consolidation and release. Similar to Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief, they can occur and reoccur in any order.
In contrast to the rather somber offerings of the evening (and omitting the second pieces for three of the choreographers), “A Friend Like You” (2021) by Sylvana Christopher gives the audience a chance to smile, chuckle, and guffaw at the both ordinary and extraordinary shenanigans performed by Winnie-the-Pooh (Jordan Daugherty) and friends. Set to early 20th century jazz music by French composer Darius Milhaud, “Carnaval D’Aix” was originally intended for commedia dell’arte, that is, stage puppetry that began in Italy (often referred to as the Punch-and-Judy show). Somehow it transmuted to a festival in Aix-en-Provence. Milhaud’s frequent tempo changes and lilting musical phrases – including a polka and a tango – rendered it wonderfully adaptable to the beloved English fable. Some very young audience members even caught the reference to Pooh without program notes or a live introduction.
Christopher mixes competing, boxing, clowning, moping, muffing, marching, crawling, sniveling, quivering, equivocating, shuffling, comforting, and reassuring all into one animated soupçon of lyrical classical ballet (tinged at the edges with bravura splits and leaps) as well as other dance styles. There’s Eeyore (Rachel Alexandra), Kanga (Covenant Babatunde), Tigger (DeAunna S. Blackwell), Owl (Sara Bradna), Christopher Robin (Adam Chavis), Piglet (Rachel Lawal), Rabbit (Kamillia McCracken), and Roo (Chelsea Wilson).
Photo by Aminta Taylor.
Each character is developed to such an idiosyncratic degree that the viewer tends to identify with at least one of them by the time they sit down to Pooh’s family picnic in the woods. Projection art by Anne Liberman is whimsical and suited to the ballet, including a darkened scene dominated by a foreboding owl in the light of a melancholic moon. This writer “became” the rambunctious Kanga (or in my dreams the lithe and lovely Rabbit). Who might you be?
Copyright by Dr. Luella Christopher 2022.Tags: DIW Luella Christopher