By Walter Rutledge
Souls of Our Feet: People of Color Dance Festival, the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center’s 36 annual choreographer’s showcase concluded its three-day festival on Wednesday June 20. The performance presented an exciting array of artists offering three individual perspectives on dance, the most humanistic yet primal of all the arts. These artists, Francesca Harper, George Faison and Iquail Shaheed, are breaking new ground at different points in their careers.
The Francesca Harper Project presented two sections . The opening section, Deconstruction 11/1: “Inspired Life” was a theatrical tribute to the choreographer’s mother Denise Jefferson. Jefferson a dancer, teacher and administrator, is best remembered as the school director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. She died of ovarian cancer on July 17, 2010, at age 65.
The performance was the second incarnation of the work, which was first presented last June at the PEEKS performance series; an informal showcase of works-in-progress offered by the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center. In that initial performance Harper was the solo performer in what was a one-woman multi media bio-event. This second rendition still featured Harper as the primary performer, but the work has been expanded to include four additional dancers in supportive roles.
Harper is a talented and accomplished performer who was able to convey her mother’s story with great stage command. She portrays both her mother and herself at different stage of their lives. At times the two characters blend into one woman, an every woman.
The work starts with a tracing of Harper’s/Jefferson’s family tree starting with Edwin Jefferson a slave of Thomas Jefferson. Tracing her family lineage established a strong family legacy; this is accomplished with projections of family photos and documents, oration, dance and song. There was a “deus ex machina” quality about the work with Harper as the omnipotent narrator/performer.
The second offering, Fearless Mine is an environmental work, with a cast of nineteen dancers that literally reached beyond the footlights. The work opened with a large ensemble group crossing the stage in silhouette and finally filling the stage with a sense of organized chaos. Performers seated in the audience, stood and moved in place and were also highlighted by clear stark lighting.
At one point dancers invaded the audience performing in the side aisles and rear of the theater, and again were lit with clear lights. There was an invasive quality about the work, which symbolized the insidious side of cancer. The section was in contrast to the fonder more reminiscent opening section, but it effectively complemented the preceding work providing depth and a different perspective.
DANCE IQUAIL Artistic Director Iquail Shaheed offered an artistic overview of his work, company and philosophy with DANCE IQUAIL (In three sections). The presentation opened with Christopher Ralph’s solo Night Falls. The tour de force solo was performed Shaheed, who kept the audience on the edge of their seats. The work beyond a mere dance competition variation, choreographer Ralph found the right blend of pathos and power, and Shaheed rose to the challenge. Night Falls was an appropriate vehicle to display Shaheed’s prowess as a performer of considerable talent and skill.
This was followed by From the Director’s Point of View A mini-documentary. This short film was an autobiographical journey into Shaheed’s life, work and upbringing in his hometown of Philadelphia. The film included dance performance and rehearsal clips, and comments by Shaheed on his work.
By far the most compelling sections were shot on the steps in front of his West Philadelphia row home, which included interviews with his maternal grandmother, and younger brother. His personal story was a testament to his inner strength to overcome insurmountable challenges to become a success and not a statistic. It revealed a character and commitment to his family and art that was both inspiring and admirable.
THE ORDER choreographed by Shaheed was an ensemble work featuring his entire seven-member company. This abstract narrative work brought to mind elements of classic 20th century modern dance. The story revolves around a woman, performed by Allison Sale, who defies being dominated by Shaheed’s warlord like character.
Without an abundance of melodrama the story immediately established the roles and hierarchy of the performers. The imagery was guided primarily by the choreographic structure, which utilized interesting asymmetrical patterns and stage configurations that created a visually balanced stage. Dancers Evaline Carbonel, Penda Jahmil, Cara McMullen, Devin Roberts and Jovan Sharp completed the cast, performing with a focused intensity and articulation.
The evening ended with a reprise of George Faison’s masterwork Tilt. The work was especially restaged for the festival, with new costume, video projections and an expanded cast. This new rendition captured the essence of the original, adding some ingenious, nuanced embellishments.
It is always a dicey proposition when artists update their work. Usually the result is goes not live up to the original. Faison has accomplished this with his usual attention to detail and forward thinking courage.
Three male dancers Justin Bryant, Nijawwon Matthews and Devin L. Roberts replaced the bumper set. The men enhanced the three female performers without upstaging them. Chloe O. Davis, Paunika Jones and Hollie E. Wright, the three females, remained the focal point of the work. Each shared a different tale of love, heartbreak and self-determination.
When the work premiered on Faison’s company the George Faison Universal Dance Experience in the early seventies, the critics chastised the choreographer for his use of popular music with lyrics. In 1973 Twyla Tharp choreographed Deuce Coupe for the Joffery Ballet, her use of the Beach Boys music was applauded and her use of contemporary music was celebrated as innovative. Faison has always been ahead of the curve and Tilt also wears that moniker.
On a side note that series presented so many dancers and choreographers who have been associated with the Philadelphia Dance Company (Philadanco) that it could have been a reunion. These artist included Germaul Barnes, Justin S.M. Bryant, Chloe O. Davis, Nijawwon Matthews, Devlin L. Roberts, Iquail Shaheed, and Hollie E. Wright, George Faison and myself. Philadanco founder Joan Myers Brown attended the Wednesday performance and her pride was evident.
The 36 season of the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center was a resounding success. The series continues the legacy of presenting an array of the most innovative new, emerging and established artist. On Thursday June 28 at 7pm. the organization will present the PEEKS performance series at the Church of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew located at 520 Clinton Avenue (Between Atlantic and Fulton) in Brooklyn. The performance is free to the public and you can get a glimpse of work in progress with a chance to talk back to the artists following the performance.
Harlem World Radio Walter’s World Interview with Paunika Jones and Francesca Harper http://www.blogtalkradio.com/harlemworld/2012/06/20/hw-radio-pod-show-with-walters-world-on-live-day-3#.T9tWCsn-9AA.email
In Photo: 1) Hollie E. Wright 2) Eriko Iisaku and company 3) Francesca Harper 4) Allyson Ross, Jahmal Chase, Kayla Harley, and Abbey Rosener (onstage) 5&6) Iquail Shaheed 7) Allison Sale, Iquail Shaheed and company 8 & 9) Justin S.M. Bryant and company 10) Joan Myers Brown
Photo Credit 1,3,4,5,9) Rodney Hurley 2,7,8) Agnes E. Green 6) Rachel Neville 10) Lois Greenfield