Jane Franklin Dance at Black Rock Center for the Arts by Luella Christopher
Jane Franklin’s Dance: “NEXT”
Black Rock Center for the Arts
Dance Festival April 14-16, 2023
May 20, 2023
By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
The April 16th exhibition by Jane Franklin Dance at the conclusion of a three-day dance festival at Black Rock Center for the Arts presented an opportunity to view the work of numerous choreographers – both homegrown and imported – in a collection of stunning, alternately witty, and provocative short pieces. The advertised title of the collection on the internet, “Cloudy with a Chance of Sun”, invited the mounting audience for dance performance in northern Montgomery County to check out this clever riff on the movie title “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs”.
The updated and titled “Cloudy with a Chance of Sun” represented the evening’s singular première and gave choreographer Andie deVaulx a chance to showcase a cast of seven performers past the age of forty. Without any printed programs and as a devotee of the written word, this dance scholar and critic thought that “Cloudy” referred to a full-length work.
The viewing of all seven pieces without an advance clue as to content or personnel resulted in my exposure to some of the most innovative contempomodern dance seen recently around the DMV (no, that’s not the Department of Motor Vehicles). Franklin had e-mailed a complete program and press release, but I didn’t know about or consult it until after the concert. Digital programs are increasingly common, says daughter Sylvana. A digital synopsis requires a bit of adjustment for those of us “troglodytes” who prefer hand-held printed programs.
DeVaulx’s piece delves into the “regenerative time of winter and the joy of spring” using a remix of the familiar song of the 1960s by The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun”. It is overwhelmingly gentle and sweet, suggestive of growing and rooting, as well as soaring toward the sun in anticipation of a life that is just as rewarding as that of youth. Swishing and walking, swinging and running, jumping and leaping, all in a canon (one after the other) gives the piece a lyrical and lighthearted quality. Supported lifts evoke their friendship for each other as well as a state of being characterized by the tranquility and comfort that aging can foster.
Choreographer deVaulx is a member of Jane Franklin Dance, which associates with Forty + [Plus] as an adjunct and ongoing outreach project. She holds an A.A. in dance from Montgomery College and a B.A. from the University of Maryland. DeVaulx was also artistic director of Equinox Dance Company in Fredrick, Maryland before joining Franklin’s company in 2007. Her dancers in “Here Comes the Sun” include: Colleen Bergeron, Andie deVaulx, Penelope Jones, Taylor Jones, Susannah Keefe, Claudia Maloney, and Peg Schaefer.
The evening actually began with artistic director Franklin’s 2022 piece “Stratum”. It’s a nonstop blast of high-energy and layered movement – initially to the strains of a tango ensemble (including bandoneón or accordion with piano, upright bass, and violin) constructed by the Astor Piazzola and Vio-dion Duo. Scoops and rolls are combined with arabesques and tour jetés.
Diagonals and collapses show Franklin‘s affinity for sudden changes to levels as well as asymmetrical (that later become more synchronized) patterns for dancers. Sculpting the air and more scoops in all directions spring from punctuated freeze-frames with occasional shoulder shrugs tossed in – this was captivating to the point of rendering the footwork almost peripheral.
Midway through “Stratum”, the music shifts to the ethereal strains of Spanish guitar by Manuel Granada (“Romance Anonimo”). Movements become more lyrical, with body curls and hands to match. Partnering receives emphasis, even to the point of supported collapses. It’s beautiful to just ABSORB.
In this writer’s view, however, the piece was too long. Reversion to Piazzola and Vio-dion’s musical tango ensemble for the last third gave Franklin a chance to utilize more freeze-frames and robotic gestures, but they seem like afterthoughts. Tango music no longer provides an effective counterpoint to the abstract choreography. The only moment that grabbed my attention was Carlough’s spirited barrel leap.
Perhaps choreographer Franklin could develop a mini full-length ballet with identified characters and articulated story – an ironic suggestion coming from me as a lover of abstraction in ballet and modern dance. Dancers in “Stratum” include: Michala Conroy, Ryan Carlough, Carly Johnson, Kelsey Rohr, Amy Scaringe, and Kevin White.
Jane Franklin is a veteran in the DMV world of dance who is known for combining forces with visual artists in settings ranging from a life-size kinetic sculpture and architecture of specific sites to interactive live video and sound for numerous public art projects. She has even collaborated with dogs and their owners! Franklin has received many awards from such organizations as the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, American Association of University Women, in addition to the Governor of Virginia.
Ryan Carlough’s “This Is” to original music of Violet Barnhart offered one of the evening’s standouts for innovative choreography. Surprisingly, it softened my typical discomfort with the use of spoken words in modern dance. Set around an oblong table, the piece explores the relationship between employees. The atmosphere rapidly becomes contentious as an incident occurs. Whether a dispute over office policies or simply a bevy of personality clashes, the full import of the conflict is left to the audience’s imagination.
Here’s the plot of “This Is”. Philip Baraoidan as “Alex” gets up early to come to work but encounters an array of last minute annoying policy directives. He gyrates and jumps on the table, then goes in search of his coworkers to reprimand them or demand explanations. “Amy”, an employee played by Kelsey Rohr, uses the table to “reorganize her workspace”, yet procrastinates. Kevin White as “James” observes two other coworkers talking. When they resort to arguing, James calls Human Resources.
“Alex” and “James” engage in a duet embellished by supported overhead lifts for the one of smaller stature, although they wind up tussling with each other. Amy Scaringe as “Jill” – the problem-solver from H.R. – arrives and scolds the four employees, hauls at least one employee away from the table, and virtually dominates the scene. A pounding electronic beat gives the story a palpable tension that never dissipates for a minute.
Carlough is a product of training in the DMV, specifically, CityDance. A resident of North Potomac, Maryland, he graduated from SUNY Purchase, an institution known for its dance department. He has since worked and performed with Company E (including Robert Priore, guest artist for the Black Rock venue), Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company, and Chamber Dance Project.
“This Is” constitutes a fresh, masterful piece of choreography. It is extremely dramatic and tells a story that would resonate even without a spoken narrative. In addition, none of Carlough’s movements or use of contemporary technique struck me as derivative of other styles or prop management choices (“Green Table” by Kurt Jooss notwithstanding). This bodes extremely well for Carlough as a choreographer to watch.
Robert J. Priore comes to Jane Franklin Dance as a guest artist, founding member of Company I E, choreographer-in-residence for Rockville, Maryland’s CityDance Conservatory, and multiple award winner. His bluesy “Knew” is oddly the most balletic piece of the evening, with movement to music: “The Poet” by Bachar Mar-Khalife, “Misty Blue” by Dorothy Moore, and “O mes theaters” by Barbara Alexander Tharaud.
Priore’s “Knew” is a trio that evokes a fractured partnership, emphasized by the delayed joining of a female dancer with two men. We might speculate that the two male characters featured prominently in the first half of the piece are lovers. The dominance of one over the other is suggested by the tendency of the man with slighter build (Philip Baraoidan) to be lifted and swirled overhead by the huskier male (Ryan Carlough). The duo opens with intricate body folds, collapses, grand jetés, and many variations on grand ronds de jambe – as well as arabesques tombées and first arabesques prefaced by contractions. As they circle each other somewhat quizzically, the lone female dancer (Amy Scaringe) enters.
“Misty Blue” with its flirty waltz rhythm provides the most compelling music for Priore’s piece. The vocalist croons her fixation with an unnamed lover. The female dancer appears to want a reunion with one of the men, but the “slighter” man keeps intervening – initially by flashing improbable grins [that all will be just fine] and later attempting to break them up. They frolic as a trio, but the first man seems insistent on reclaiming the woman.
The bluesy song in French affords female dancer Scaringe a brief solo, followed by still more frolicking. Soon her arms are outstretched in front of her as if pushing the two men away. Her final gesture is a sideways glance to the audience indicating that she is done with the shifting liaisons. Afterall, the two are lying prone on the floor with their expressions obscured and faces looking towards the exit.
Next up is Robert Rubama’s “Drone”, a quartet set to the hypnotic musical sounds composed by Caterina Barbieri in her 2021 work, “Fantas for Saxophone and Voice”, (featuring Norwegian saxophonist Bendik Giske) and dancers Ryan Carlough, Kelsey Rohr, Amy Scaringe, and Kevin White. “Drone” is a paean to continuous movement that relies on changing speeds and extreme control of the body to traverse multiple levels.
Supported aerial lifts morph downward while arcing, diving, and planing capitalize on the high velocity of Rubama’s piece. Slow-motion rotations skim the floor and transit through splits. Kevin White in particular engages in much floor work – from rolls to knees curling around each other. From beginning to end, these difficult movements are executed without the slightest pause. A manipulated electronic score in a style reminiscent of Phillip Glass (without notes) pulses throughout the whole work and generates the final ebbing and flowing of this fine ensemble.
Guest artist Rubama earned a BFA in Dance from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and has performed with many companies from Agora Dance to Peridance and also in many venues such as The Joyce Theater in New York City (dancing for choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo) and The Harris Theater in Chicago. Rubama also became the founder and artistic director of Terre Dance Collective.
“Shake” (2023) is perhaps the most ambitious mixed media piece of the evening. Franklin’s choreography is set to music of Anno Domini Beats and Setuniman. The music is also synchronized electronically with three spoken poems by visual artist and social advocate Bennie Herron, performed by the originator: “Connected”, “Powdered Milk”, and “Summertime”. Meant to bring forward images of childhood, the short poems are informed in part by the sociopolitical Hip Hop artists of the 1990s and poets in the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s.
Dancer Philip Baraoidan commands a strong presence in “Shake” with balletic lines and extensions in an opening trio that includes Ryan Carlough and Amy Scaringe. Baraoidan manifests Franklin’s employment of a “genre within a genre” approach to choreography, demonstrating classical ballet moves like grand battements à la seconde and tours en attitude derrière (executed with toes pointed) within a distinctly modern dance setting.
Dancers Carlough and Scaringe immediately perform virtually the same steps as Baraoidan except that they are contemporized with chiefly flexed feet, quirky hand gestures, and arcing knee bends. The counterpoint between ballet and modern genres is very effective and an utter delight to watch.
Dancer Scaringe proceeds to set up the “base phrase” for the rest of the rhythmically punctuated, verbally dense piece. She moves within an invisible box – twisting and expanding as if breaking out of its edges. In Herron’s poetry, the bonds are those of past experiences to which Blacks in America were confined. He urges them to “shake out” of such bonds.
Herron’s poems – less than a minute apiece – are recited clearly, with pathos and power. Each poem is represented literally in Franklin’s choreography. In “Connected”, he declares: “Where is your heart? Look around you. Where is the sun? Look above you. Where are your brothers? Look beside you. Where is your freedom? Look inside you.” Scaringe holds her heart and reaches for the sun.
In the second poem, Herron vividly depicts a Black family’s submergence in a state of poverty that was only grasped when consuming “powdered milk with a teaspoon of sugar that tasted like regular milk, just a little gray in color”. Dancers Ryan Carlough, Michala Conroy, Kelsey Rohr, Jameel Salahuddin, and Kevin White join Scaringe and together they illustrate the remainder of the poem. With four older sisters, the symbolic young Black man has to settle for “hand-me-downs [that] came with shoulder pads”. They test the width of the shoulder pads, gesturing from one side to the other.
In the third poem, Herron opines that summer is the “perfect amount of time to cause some trouble”. After devising a deceptive, workable plan, and executing it, a child could “spend the rest of the season in the house watching friends play through the window”.
Franklin’s rendering blends seamlessly into the evening’s final choreographic offering. It’s a new work (2023) by choreographer Kevin White entitled “Peace Is of a Man“ that once again employs song and lyrics by activist Bennie Herron. White is a multi-talented product of Dance Institute of Washington (DIW) and Kent State University where he minored in modern dance and reinforced his early training in ballet at Putney Summer Arts Program in Vermont. He now teaches the modern genre along with West African, Broadway Jazz, Afro House, Hip Hop, and other styles.
Unfortunately, the extended poem is rather hard to understand owing to the speed of Herron’s delivery. Only after eventually listening to the track’s recording did it become clear to this writer that Herron is reflecting on the experience of a Black man overcoming such hurdles. “Chokehold” – the only word I could hear in performance – triggered my awareness of his apparent reference to police brutality. The solution to these dilemmas is for the Black man to develop his own gifts as an empowered, creative individual. “You wrote yourself in and out of pain with a pipe, a pen, and some fire,” Herron muses in the remaining minutes of the piece.
Encircled by the ensemble, the choreographer melds West African gestures – connecting Herron’s lyrics to stories of African peoples, of the ancients, and of living peoples – “At the end, this is where we meet”. This inspirational work owes much to a career in social services that has led Herron to work with public schools, prisons, and universities for 25 years. Currently, he is a Father Engagement Specialist with Fairfax County in Virginia. He is also an accomplished visual artist who has exhibited his work in many galleries.
Herron’s body of visual work may be characterized as Art Brut (literally, “raw art”, a term coined by Jean Dubuffet – also frequently referred to as art created outside the boundaries of culture). “Peace is of a Man” is likely also linked to the Primitivism and Neo-Expressionism of American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. More explanation of these styles, association with the elevation of “outsiders” to expanded societal roles, and images (in Herron’s case, by the artist himself) can be found online.
This writer highly recommends the online search in order to grasp both the lyrics of the long poem recited here and its fulfillment through Kevin White’s evocative choreography of the 1960s. The “Peace Is of a Man” (depicted in the photo below) is danced by Carlough, Conroy, Rohr, Salahuddin, Scaringe, and choreographer White.
All in all, the seven choreographic offerings reinforce Jane Franklin Dance as a stellar regional company to follow. The evening was a triumph for dance as storytelling and abstraction, the use of both spoken and unspoken narratives, the extra spice delivered by multimedia musical resources from Latinx to electronic and, finally, the mixing of movement genres.
The entire program deserved a much larger audience than the few families who had shepherded their kids to the three-day dance festival for classes and/or demos. Black Rock Center for the Arts in my ever-more populated “burg” of Germantown, Maryland (now recognized as the most ethnically diverse city in the USA) needs to reach out to my hometown, other surrounding suburbs of the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C., and the entire DMV. With apologies to Delaware, that’s the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia.
Please, Black Rock: Continue to build your audience for dance PERFORMANCE by providing us much more accurate, complete advertising online. Notify us through good old-fashioned snail-mail with colorful brochures, too. A member of the original Task Force to create a center for the arts in Germantown in the mid-1990s, I revere the scaled-down physical venue for dance performance that the Task Force designed. Just want more companies to use it!
*Banner headline photo is of Ryan Carlough in the foreground of one of the components of “Shake/Three Poems/Peace is of a Man” with choreography (“Shake”) by Jane Franklin, “Three Poems” and Visual Art by Bennie Herron, and choreography (“Peace is of a Man”) by Kevin White
Copyright © 2023 by Luella ChristopherTags: Jane Franklin Dance Luella Christopher