Recently, during a university class discussion of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I asked students to list – deliberately ambiguous here – what the bound, shadow-show viewers must necessarily “make” of their experiences. One student suggested: “They will make sacred dances.”
However much we seem to be emancipated from it now, the element of the sacred is basic to dance and culture. In the US, this is especially evident in the work of choreographers like Alvin Ailey, Alonzo King, Dwight Rhoden, Bill T. Jones and Waverly Lucas, whose companies perform ritualistic and celebratory works that employ the mixed vocabularies of African dance and ballet.
Of course, cultural integration and globalization of religion in the arts is not limited to dance, or even to American art. European choreographers Jiri Kylian (Stepping Stones, 1991), Val Caniparoli (Lambarena, 2000) and Nacho Duato (Jardi Tancat, 1983; Sinfonia India, 1984; Na Floresta, 1990) have been doing it for years. Likewise, for the Passion 2000 Project in Stuttgart, Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov premiered his La Pasion Segun San Marcos, a retelling of the Gospel of St Mark. It is a piece that is filtered through JS Bach’s Passions and fused with the minimalism of Steve Reich, but it includes elements of Latin and African music such as chanting, drumming, flamenco, basa nova and samba. The incorporation of costumed dancers gives the entire production the atmosphere of a street festival.
In dance, this fusion of forms may arguably have begun with the work of American dancer and choreographer Alvin Ailey, who formed his company in 1958. Its mission is to create and perform works that celebrate the essential American multicultural mix. It integrates
modern dance with ballet and jazz, and in many works incorporates an African influence. Two dance suites, The River and Revelations, which employ spirituals, song-sermons, gospel pieces and holy blues that Ailey himself describes as “sometimes sorrowful, sometimes jubilant, but always hopeful,” have acquired icon status in the US.
Choreographer Alonzo King also repeatedly returns to folk forms for inspiration. A writer of commissioned pieces for dance companies around the world, and artistic director of his own company LINES, formed in 1982, he has composed several works based in African music: The People of the Forest, 2001; Sighs and Wonders, 1997; Song of the Aka, 1991; IV Short Stories, 1985 and Zulu, 1975. These ballets are clearly related to one another not only thematically, but also musically. Each attempts to explore central truths about humanity, individually and collectively, but divorced from canned culture. In his somewhat epigrammatic, 1996 essay “Look Behind the Eyes,” King writes: “Contrary to public opinion art is not a matter of whimsy and emotion. Art is the knowledge of how things are done.” Tradition is a key to understanding core human values, a key “which has always existed, always will exist, and to which we all have access…Art doesn’t need to be novel, only original. [It] is not progressive—it either is or isn’t. There has been no improvement on the primitive masters—only a joining in the dialogue.”
Specific choreographies bear this concept out.
King’s The People of the Forest, premiered by LINES in 2001, is an artistic collaboration between the choreographer, company dancers and Nzamba Lela, a 16-member ensemble of musicians/dancers of the BaAka Pygmies. Nzamba Lela toured France and Switzerland for three weeks in 2001, and performed in Germany. One of the world’s last hunter-gatherer societies, the BaAka live in the Lobaye region of the Central African Republic, a forest zone particularly dense and intersected with stretches of swamps. The People of the Forest, choreographed to live BaAka music, is King’s most recent attempt to show, through folk forms, the concept of transcendence through ritual. For the BaAka, hunting, marriage, trade, teaching, and games were ritual social activities carried out by ancestors in an Eden-like past. Their practice in contemporary life allows the group to relive this past and thereby enter sacred time, infusing actions with sacred meaning. Through dances that convey this sacred experience, King attempts to show connections between the religious life of the pygmies and all religious practice.
BaAka music also is linked to particular social functions. The musical event, the type of dance that goes with it, the percussive formula, and the length of each musical piece reflect specific rituals. This music is distinguished by the practice of highly elaborate vocal polyphony particularly suited to dancing. It appears at first to have no structure, but once begun it becomes a collective effort – all members of the community – men, women and children – participate equally. Improvisation, seeming to dominate, is actually restricted by a rhythmic and melodic framework. When someone intones a new song, the old one is abandoned or becomes a series of rhythmic cries.
Another example of the phenomenon can be found in the choreography of Bill T. Jones. His Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane company performs works such as Duet (2000), reincarnated in 2002 as Power/Full, set to folk music from various cultures: work songs from Madagascar, funeral chants from the Ivory Coast, and Mahur-Persian traditional tunes. It employs an engaging modern vocabulary of rolling shoulders, flex-point-extend, mirroring of bodies, and passages from rapid to sustained movement without transition. We hear tools beating out a odd, tricky sort of rhythm, achieved by skipping an unpredictable number of beats, while broad, erect, sharp movements of the performers’ bodies match the music evenly. Just when we think we have got it figured out, we know where the choreographer is going, the dancers laugh in unison, and we see how we have been deceived.
The successful and relatively new company formed by Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson in 1994, Complexions, A Concept in Dance, showcases dancers from various companies and celebrates beauty in diversity. The New York Times calls Complexions “a big happy party on stage and in the audience.” Both men have enjoyed illustrious careers. Richardson has principaled with Alvin Ailey (1987 – 94), the Frankfurt Ballet (1994 – 96), and American Ballet Theatre. Critics hailed his role in Lar Lubovich’s “Othello,” performed with ABT at the Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1997, as “majestic” and “larger than life.” He also received a Tony award nomination for his performance in the Broadway production, Fosse.
Richardson began as a street-corner breakdancer, of the poplock school, a lyrical style of rhythmic movement that collapses, contorts and dislocates the frame. Dancers appear to lock and unlock the joints in staccato motions that have a certain robotic poetry.
“His original training in poplocking is what makes him such a formidable dancer,” says Danielle Gee, previously of Alvin Ailey. Hip-hop made him so limber that he quickly appropriated the contours of ballet, but the fixed technique seemed to pluck the joy from his dancing. Then, one afternoon, watching the Ailey Company rehearse, he saw dancers moving “from the gut with real passion. I saw how I could incorporate street dancing with the technique I was learning. I saw how I could bring some magic to the stage.”
Combining the two techniques became a way of commenting on the past while remaining true to the personality of contemporary dance, and to his own personality. Mastering the hybrid choreography of Complexions’ Artistic Director Dwight Rhoden, however, required not only a physical but also a cultural bilingualism. “You have to have exquisite control of your weight and your center, moving with clarity and force at the same time.” Another dancer who worked with Rhoden for about a year has said, “His style is very physically and technically demanding, but it’s also quirky and individualistic. He makes you feel that what you’re doing with your body is what you’ve been trying to say all along. Complexions is very much on the edge, about taking risks physically and mentally.”
Such risks are typical of Rhoden’s Verge, which North Carolina Dance Theatre premiered March 8, 2002, with Richardson guesting. Set against the background of a target, the ballet is a series of almosts. Each episode bears a stoned-humorous title: Hypothetical Nuance, The If and Or of It, and Duplicitous Ironies, for example. Richardson is languid, latent energy, then suddenly poised and hunter-like. His hip-hop inspired head movements punctuate the jazz/ ballet fouettes, petit battements and long horizontal jetes reminiscent of Balanchine’s The Four Seasons. Partnering in Verge also upsets tradition, with male dancers mirroring other males, and women lifting men. NCDT’s Edgar Vardanian is a good choice height-wise to mirror Richardson, but is so far out-classed technically that their partnership is a sad joke.
The popularity of this style of dancing has brought about a huge upsurge, in the US, in the creation of African-dance-based regional companies. A glance at the roster of performing groups attending any one of the dance arts festivals held yearly all around the country will bear out this fact. One particularly distinguished troupe, Ballethnic, whose choreographer Waverly Lucas emerged from the soloist ranks of Harlem Dance Theatre, has the singular commitment of infusing Vaganova tradition with African movement. “The Russian technique is the best blend with the African vocabulary. It offers the most power and attack.”
A source of this dance style’s popularity may be the joy, novelty and challenge dancers feel in the choreography. Lucas visited Portugal as a lecturer (1999) and teacher (2001), focusing on the mixing of classical ballet with African vocabulary and rhythms. During his choreography of Accusations for the Royal School of Lisbon, students came to Lucas’s classes, “Ballethnicize” and “Afro-Jazz,” thinking they already knew what would be taught. Once they’d seen the work, however, dozens of unregistered students began slipping in the doors, so many the school had to hire someone just to keep track of attendance.
Lucas likes to work with oppositions. “One area of body follows the classical mode – say feet – while the trunk is moving off center. Between the body and feet you have two rhythms in syncopation. Or you can go the other way. The body can move to the base rhythm, and the feet to the melody.” In a rehearsal of Lucas’s new choreography, Soulitude, set to music by Ayub Oganda from the Mombasa Luo tribe and world premiered October 5, 2002, at Atlanta’s Robert Ferst Center for the Performing Arts, dancers execute a series of backward hops, dragging toes. Between classical ballet steps, they bounce forward leading from the hips. Heads drop rather than being snapped or bobbed on the downbeat. Meanwhile feet execute a modified pas de bouree, punctuated by a low and flexed develope. Some hip hop-looking steps come directly from West Africa, as does the vocabulary of hip-hop itself, movement having to do with speed, slight of hand, chest rolls, rotations inward. We also see a bit of yoga: a tree, a plow, and a scorpion all performed in pointe shoes.
For dancers, the progression to pointe is demanding because so much of ballet training requires the fixedness of the trunk. “They simply are not taught to move this way en pointe. So, in teaching, my focus is similarities in styles rather than differences. We work in stages, and start with finding movements dancers can relate to their classical training. They say, ‘That’s Graham or jazz or Balanchine.’ But after awhile, you forget about the categories.”
As to the question of authenticity, Lucas remarks: “In Africa, they argue about authenticity! Tradition – old school verses contemporary dance, or scholars’ dance – they have the same arguments we find in the west. Music has been international for awhile, but dance lags behind. Modern tries, but ballet needs to continue learning, especially in the uses of music. Music calls the body to move, and to move in a particular way. For choreography to be good it must be true to that music and to the human heart. It must relate to the soul of the community – it’s not just personal.”
The difficulty for now seems to be that this choreography has limits. Critics complain about redundancy in the work of Complexions, arguably the strongest of these companies, while the regional organizations can look amateurish, and have problems with technique. Even the iconization of Alvin Ailey company’s output indicates stasis. Still, developments in the dance vocabulary help to keep it a living artform, even if they are not always good.