Dance moves the spirit

We really need to understand better how the arts speak to one another.

A lot of contemporary art is made in response to other works of art, past and present - sometimes in mockery, sometimes in homage. Music influences architecture (architect Cab Childress told me last year that he listens to music while he is designing a new building); theater inspires performance art; and in one riveting exhibition, the celebrated influence on visual art is dance.

"When the Spirit Moves: African American Art Inspired by Dance" at Spellman College in Atlanta, a traveling exhibition, features dance from Africa, from slave days in the American South, and from across the 20th century.

Many a painter and sculptor were bent on capturing distinctive human movement, the vitality of a living culture, and the enormous variety of emotions expressed in and created by dance of all kinds.

The accompanying catalog to the show points out that even though African slaves arrived in the United States with no possessions, they did bring their cultures. Dance, music, stories, and religious beliefs came with them and enriched America.

Ken Burns is about to present a 10-part documentary called "Jazz" (look for it on PBS in January). It is the history of a form originating in the African-American community that transformed music across America and yet has remained unique. With it, came new dance forms, which, as the "Spirit Moves" exhibition demonstrates, are rooted in ancient African dance forms.

LaVon Van Williams, a former pro-basketball player, captures the bliss of social dance and the serious nature of its ancient roots in "Rent Party," a two-sided wood-carving in which the dancers' hands and feet are elongated, their eyes are closed, and their bodies jumbled in a deliberate rhythmic pattern. The rhythm of the dance, the crush of humanity, and the excitement of the music shakes up the imagination.

Romare Bearden was a musician himself and his wonderful lithograph, "Louisiana Serenade" speaks of inner harmonies and bubbling melodies. Richard Barclift's brush-and-ink drawings capture the strength of stylish movement - a leap that requires every muscle in a dancer's body is indicated with a few powerful, swift lines.

Just as daringly straightforward - the simplicity that is never easy - are the drawings of Ademola Olugebefola, who with pen and ink and a few quick, elegant lines, captures a ballet dancer's pirouette as it moves through space, conveying that form's ephemeral beauty.

These are only a few of the terrific works at Spellman (and in Washington, D.C., at the Anacostia Museum Center for African American History and Culture Dec. 2 through July).

A permanent art form captures the grace, energy, and rhythm of a temporal form. And it reminds us how inspiring movement-in-time can be.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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