Dunham dance tribute draws from roots

Since the 1930s, Katherine Dunham has been revolutionizing modern dance in America with her explorations of the African and Afro-Caribbean roots of black American dance. Both a trained dancer and a University of Chicago-educated anthropologist, she developed the Katherine Dunham technique, an approach that combined the stylistic elements of those roots with ballet and modern methods. The third and final installment of the Triple Shot of Dance this past Friday was a celebration of the life and work of this groundbreaking and influential choreographer. For this year’s Stalwart Originality: New Traditions in Black Performance show, the Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble created an arrangement of pieces choreographed and influenced by Dunham that provided both an education in Dunham’s work as well as a continuation of its spirit.

The night opened with the original piece “Dance as Ritual,” choreographed by Theo Jamison in the Dunham Technique. Immediately noticeable was the fluid athleticism that marked the rest of the evening; undulating torsos and reaching limbs were repeated throughout the course of the show. The first dancer entered onto a stage bare except for a candlelit alter in the background, which provided both scenery and context for the first two pieces. The work combined the tendency of modern styles to follow the body’s natural movements and a careful study of traditional African rituals, building to a certain frenetic energy, organized and ritualized. While pleasing to watch, this first piece displayed its subject without fully exploring the meaning, something like a well-written essay with an incomplete conclusion.

The next piece, “My Bahia,” balanced the intense energy of the first with a calmer tone. More balletic than the opener, it featured three female dancers clad in white rather than a large corps cast across the stage. As the women moved in seemingly effortless harmony, they didn’t feel like a trio of dancers performing for an audience so much as a trio of priestesses to whose ritual the audience was privy. Unfortunately, slight mistiming on one or two occasions detracted from the overall effect, a repeated problem in the next piece, the Dunham original “Choros.”

An energetic and playful study in courtship featuring Afro-Caribbean influences, “Choros” involved only two pairs of dancers, so slight missteps became much clearer than they would have been in the midst of a larger ensemble piece. Also affecting “Choros” was its somewhat dated feel. Debuting in 1943, the piece was banned in Boston for overtly sexual tones; in the age of dance-floor grinding, it felt more throwback than shocking.

Following “Choros,” “Progressions Based on Dunham Technique,” an ensemble piece and arguably the strongest performance of the night explored a more aggressive, warlike side of culture. Through strong centers, controlled arms and legs bent in attitude during turns and jumps alike, the energy that felt free to an uncontrollable point in “Dance as Ritual” stayed harnessed in a display of power and energy. The dancers also displayed remarkably fluid feet that were technically strong and ultimately a very nice visual addition.

After the intermission, the ensemble returned with another group piece, “Raindance.” As the name suggests, the work built around the premise of calling rain to fall. Exemplifying both the strengths and weaknesses of the evening, “Raindance” at its best conveyed the emotional power of uniting in a group effort. The energy and enthusiasm of the group came through in this piece as in others, but at times the lack of timing worked against it. As with the smaller groups, the total synchronization of movement made occasional small missteps more noticeable.

Next, the playful “Ragtime from Treemonisha,” explored the same theme of courtship that “Choros” had earlier, though this work felt distinctly more American. Set to music by the ragtime composer Scott Joplin, the piece was a cheerful and fun 1920s-esque look at young men trying to pull girls on a night out. Pleasant individually, these two works together offer a cross-cultural comparison of courtship mores.

Closing out the evening, the Cleo Parker Robinson original “Yemanja Finale” seemed intent both on illustrating Dunham’s technical contributions and on capturing the spirit of her efforts. The movement felt spontaneous and inclusive and had a section where the dancers had a chance to express themselves as individuals.

The sense of inclusion in “Yemanja” continued afterward as Parker Robinson took to the stage at the show’s end and invited the audience to come up and dance with the company. As the spectators moved up from their seats, the enthusiasm in the room seemed to capture the “compassion” and inclusivity Robinson spoke of as characteristic of Dunham’s work and spirit. Though not every work was flawless or seemed able to stand alone, taken as a whole, the evening’s pieces communicated the spirit and the deep interest in the cultures and roots Dunham brought from obscurity and into today’s dance.