Speech, Song, And Social Commentary
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The Creative Outlet Dance Theatre of Brooklyn opened the program at Central Park’s SummerStage Friday night and Urban Bush Women, which performed following the intermission, completed the bill. Both groups aimed to represent the African-American experience. Both struck an inspirational note that also included some social comment. Both used speech and song. And yet each was a distinctly different ensemble. Creative Outlet is professional and polished, but also has the flavor of a community enterprise. The 14 dancers onstage performed with high energy and an adrenaline level that made their ranks appear to swell. Dancers of all ages appeared onstage; some seemed to be students and not all were quite on the same level of proficiency, but in some way that provided demographic relevance and authenticity.
During a medley of pieces featuring duets, solos, and ensembles, the company put on its best bib and tucker in a dizzying series of costume changes that included everything from sarongs to club wear. Most of the choreography was by Jamel Gaines, the company’s Artistic Director and Founder, and was an eclectic fusion of everything from Broadway jazz to hip hop to movement derived from apostles of high modern dance of the 1940s. The music ranged from Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story” to spirituals sung by Marian Anderson, which served to construct a Civil War landscape of battlefield and leave-takings in George Faison’s “Rush Holla.”
The evening was well paced and flowed easily. But though the company generally strives for accessibility, Mr. Gaines earns respect by not always taking the easiest way out.
Since its founding in 1984 by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Urban Bush Women, also based in Brooklyn, has achieved a distinct presence on the international dance forum. The company manifests the potent solidarity of women dancing together, tapping into a cultural reverberation that in a European context goes back to the potent lore of the maenads of Ancient Greece.
On Friday night it performed “Walking With Pearl … Africa Diaries,” choreographed by Ms. Zollar in collaboration with her dancers, and first performed in 2004. It was built around the autobiographical words of dancer/choreographer/anthropologist Pearl Primus’s autobiographical words, this evening recited on stage by Ms. Zollar herself.
After making her concert dance debut in 1943, Primus made many trips to Africa, conducting research that eventually led to her earning a doctorate in 1978.The subjects of Primus’s remarks in “Walking with Pearl” encompassed a celebration of Africa, an anguished recapitulation of the diaspora, and a lament on the segregated state of black Americans. It also reflected on the cathartic possibilities of dance itself, as Primus determined to “dance out my anger and my tears.”
The women on stage responded to Primus’s impassioned words and the occasional interjection of musical comment without attempting to be directly illustrative, pursuing a formal vocabulary that embraced a continuum of forms
from tribal to hip hop — one solo could have been an African “Dying Swan.”The dancers lay fetal on the ground or sat up attentively in a tribal circle. They were undulating and paroxysmic. The relationships between the individual members constantly shifted — sometimes each dancer seemed a loner or free spirit in her own world, and sometimes they were bound together in common cause.
Toward the end of “Walking With Pearl,” Ms. Zollar left her perch downstage right and inserted herself into the coiling and swaying performance space. The piece concluded on a fierce and rhapsodic integration of narration and movement.