The Roots of Black Dance Preserved

ON a stage that resembles a desolate Harlem street, a junkie dances a jittery and desperate solo of need. An ensemble of tough teen-agers whirl and box to rasping sounds of jazz. A swaying woman, with a bag of possessions at her feet, shouts angrily into the night. When this dance, ``Blues for the Jungle,'' was first performed in 1962, it shocked audiences almost as much with its dance style as with its grim and confrontational themes. What choreographer Eleo Pomare describes as ``a documentary kind of dance'' - one that built a ballet on the street moves of Harlem teens - was still a new concept.

But from the movements and emotions of the street, Mr. Pomare created a classic work that helped shape the development of modern dance worldwide.

The eerily up-to-date portrayal of urban life in ``Blues'' still hurts to watch. But today its fusion of ballet, jazz, and street moves has become as ordinary as MTV.

``Blues for the Jungle'' was performed by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company June 22-24 at Duke University's Page Auditorium, as part of the American Dance Festival's three-year project at Duke, ``The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance.''

The project reconstructs, stages, and videotapes the dances by major African-American choreographers who helped create the modern dance of today. Revival pieces are performed by companies that each choreographer chooses and instructs. In addition to the dances, ``The Black Tradition in American Modern Dance'' includes seminars on dance by black choreographers, archival recordings of their works.

Along with ``Blues for the Jungle,'' this year's revivals included Talley Beatty's stunning 1959 jazz dance ``The Road of the Phoebe Snow'' and Donald McKayle's 1962 classic ``District Storyville,'' and all three works' choreographers were all on hand for this year's event.

``Each one of these works sort of pushed a frontier or a border,'' says William Moore, a New York-based dance critic and writer who was part of the panel that selected the dances for the revival. ``They are pivotal masterworks.''

Modern dance is an American-born art form, begun in the 20th century as a rebellion against the rigidity of classical ballet. African-American dancers, who faced extreme prejudice in the ballet world, were able to found successful modern-dance companies as early as the 1940s.

At first, black choreographers studied African and Caribbean dances for sources of rhythm and movement. But beginning with Talley Beatty in the 1950s, they began studying movement in the African-American communities around them.

``The way people walk and sit, the attitude they carry around with them can be used as a springboard for more intricate movements,'' explains Pomare. ``I tried to get as close to the truth as possible.''

The result was innovative, vital dance that has influenced the development of modern dance, Broadway dance, jazz, and social dance in the US and abroad.

``Seeing these works was like being hit by a sledge hammer,'' recalls Charles Reinhart, director of the 55-year-old American Dance Festival and a former dance producer. ``They had incredible emotional impact. They gave me a whole awareness of another culture.''

In addition to their stylistic power, all three of the dances performed at this year's festival are immensely human dramas, expressing themes of love, work, religion, anger, and joy in black communities. ``Blues for the Jungle'' traces the experiences of African-Americans from slavery to the urban present.

``If you're an American and you're familiar with the lives of black people, you recognize what the choreographer is talking about,'' says critic William Moore.

``The Road of the Phoebe Snow'' is a fast-paced, sensual number set to music by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. ``It's a story of young people who have been alienated from their families and society, and so they make their life on the street,'' says Mr. Beatty.

``They look like a bunch of tough people, but they are not really so tough. Their way of getting away from their anger is to show how beautiful they are.''

In a style that Jerome Robbins would popularize in ``West Side Story,'' the dancers move with arabesques and thrusting hips, writhing bodies, and graceful leaps. ``So many things in what we call jazz dance emerged in that piece,'' says Joe Nash, dance history coordinator at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater School. ``It established very high levels of choreography.''

The piece was danced at the this year's festival by Gallman's Newark Dance Theatre, a company of dancers mostly from New Jersey's inner cities, trained under an urban scholarship program at Gallman's Newark Dance Theatre School.

McKayle's ``District Storyville'' is the most joyous of the dances, a paean to New Orleans's cradle of jazz. ``It has a great entertainment quotient,'' says McKayle, a recipient of five Tony nominations.

The dance begins with New Orleans funeral marchers mourning on the way to the graveyard and celebrating life as they return. To music by Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, and Dorothea Freitag, dancers of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company strut through brothels, blast their trumpets, and finally disperse to carry jazz throughout the world.

All three of these dances have been performed numerous times in the years since they were written, but because none of the choreographers now has his own dance company, it was possible that the pieces might have been lost. Modern dance can be written down, using a complex system of notation, but usually it is taught to dancers by the choreographer and then preserved in a company's repertory.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The Roots of Black Dance Preserved
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today