Performing arts grace TV again

Black dancers and African a cappella group overcome racism

Television producers are getting better at presenting the performing arts on TV. It's taken a long time, and even the best documentaries are never a substitute for live performance. But something fresh and lively can be captured as dance, theater, and music (occasionally even opera) find their way onto the small box.

This week, three fine documentaries highlight these performing arts, sometimes to dazzling effect. Great Performances presents "Dance in America: Free to Dance" (PBS, June 24, 8-11 p.m.); Egg The Art Show presents "Experiments in Theater" (PBS, check local listings); and a moving documentary about the relationship between apartheid and the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, "On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom" is on Cinemax June 26, 7:35-8:15 p.m..

Free to Dance chronicles the history of African-American dance and its influence on American culture. "Without the African contribution, we would not have had American dance as we know it," says author Katrina Hazzard Donald. The film carefully demonstrates why she's right. From wonderful archival footage taken by anthropologist and dancer Katherine Dunham of descendants of slaves she studied in the Caribbean during the 1920s, we see the origins of African dance there and in the United States.

The contributions to dance of Ms. Dunham, herself an African-American, are well-known. But perhaps less well-known are the contributions of Edna Guy, a young girl who broke into the world of professional dance against the will of the public and of her teacher, Ruth St. Denis.

A social racist, Ms. St. Denis nevertheless seemed to have cared very much for the dark-skinned Edna. St. Denis fluctuated between encouraging and protecting Edna and discouraging and patronizing her. It was an odd, but somehow fruitful relationship for Ms. Guy, who broke with St. Denis to form her own company.

Some of Guy's dances, based on African-American spirituals, are re-created here, although there is no positive record of what they looked like. Guy was a pioneer who helped open the gates of theatrical expression to renowned African-American dancers such as Talley Beatty, Donald McKayle, Pearl Primus, and Alvin Ailey, says producer Madison Davis Lacy. "The whole tradition of the spiritual in dance started with her," he says.

The religious nature of some African dance, Guy's creative response to her church's music, and the expression of hope amidst sorrow in a piece like "The Mourner's Bench," by Talley Beatty, speak of the human spirit rising in the face of suffering to reach toward the divine, to express the divine, and to find comfort there. "We are called to do what we do," says dancer Rosalynde Lacy.

The world of dance is also a world of muscular discipline and even daredevil risk-taking, defying gravity and the ordinary movements of the body. From something as athletic as break dancing to high lifts, falls, and jumps, powerful dancing requires courage and commitment.

African-American dance combines the vernacular dance of the city streets and the rural roadhouses, the ancient movement of tribal ritual and European dance forms from ballet to Martha Graham. It has influenced all contemporary dance forms, from club dancing to the most hip of the avant-garde. It is as American as apple pie.

"African-American dance can be anything we want it to be," says Mr. Davis Lacy, who stresses he is not a dancer. "It's not a homogenous thing ... I know I was spiritually and emotionally moved by many of the things I saw on stage.... I wanted to pass that feeling along [to the television audience]," he says. "The [challenge] as a producer is to find the emotional dynamics of the work and to grab it by the heart."

Just a word about Experiments in Theater. For all of us living outside New York City, it's a chance to hear from director and stage designer Julie Taymor ("The Lion King") and see her in action - in rehearsal, in building her extraordinary masks, and in talking about her work. It makes this episode of Egg absolutely riveting.

But if that weren't enough, how about a version of an obscure Aaron Copeland opera that tours farms in the Midwest - using farmhouses as the sets, while folks hungry for an artistic expression of what their life means gather from miles around? Fabulous things are being done in the theater, some of them in unexpected places.

On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom tells a moving story about a sensitive performing company of singers whose roots are in Zulu music and who have created a style of their own. Some of the songs of Ladysmith Black Mambazo are humorous. Many of the hybrids they sing protest apartheid.

Their tradition dates back a hundred years or more to when Africans were taken from their homes and shipped to mines in South Africa. Missing their families and their way of life, they performed Zulu war dances for each other. But since those dances scared the authorities, they began to "tiptoe," that is move carefully. These entertainments eventually turned into contests, with the winning group receiving a goat. The music they sang evolved with Western influences.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo played a major role in Paul Simon's hugely successful "Graceland" album, and we hear from Mr. Simon in the film. But the real fascination here is the music itself and the men who sing it, led by Joseph Shabalala, whose dream it was to tour with his company - and who finds his songs in his dreams.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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