WCMA hosts dance co.’s take on race relations during Depression

The celebrated modern dance company 360° performed “Dialogues in Dance” inside the confines of the “African Americans and the American Scene, 1929-1945” exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) last Wednesday.

Dance 360
Members of the 360° dance company held a master class in the Dance Studio for eager students.

The performance emphasized themes expressed in the works of the gallery, illustrating the hardships that African Americans faced during the Great Depression through the medium of dance. The show, much like the art in the gallery, showcased the political nature of African-American art in this era.

The 360° Dance Company, founded by Martin Lofsnes in 2006, blends modern dance with contemporary pieces; the troupe attempts to revive and reconstruct contemporary dance elements because, as Lofsnes described, “The pieces can only live while they’re being performed.” To this end, the company produces its own choreography in addition to collaborating with external choreographers and reconstructing the works of others.

In the first of three dances, Lofsnes performed a solo titled “Mourner’s Bench,” a piece fashioned in 1947 by Talley Beatty, a prolific choreographer from Chicago. “Mourner’s Bench” was produced in response to Howard Fast’s novel Southern Landscape and depicts one man’s lamentation of a lynching. The dance was performed around a wooden bench, which was located centrally in the gallery and represented the bench upon which a mourning family would sit to receive condolences in church.

Lofsnes began the piece sitting in the center of the bench, as a haunting, crackling rendition of “There is a Balm in Gilead” resonated throughout the gallery. Lofsnes moved slowly at first, making grand sweeping motions with his arms, but then alternated his elegant gestures with faster, more contorted movements that conveyed the pain of the mourning man. He flung his arms backward, as if begging for release from the oppressive weight of his sorrow. After balancing precariously on the mourning bench, he collapsed to the ground while the slow, gentle cadence of the traditional slave song plodded slowly on. Lofsnes rose and resumed his position on the bench, continuing to shift between smooth and shuddering movements, but as the piece came to its conclusion, he rolled from the bench and curled protectively into a fetal position. The heavy emotion of the piece conveyed the devastation of a mourning family and the inescapable sorrow of a lynching.

The next piece was titled “Time is Money” and was choreographed by Jane Dudley in 1934. A choreographer, teacher and modern dancer in the 20th century, Dudley was a member of New Dance Group, which was famous for its politically charged pieces. “Time is Money” expressed the continual oppression of the working class that facilitated racial inequality during the Great Depression. The piece was performed to the poem “Time is Money” by Sol Funaroff, who was a poet for the New Dance Company.

Lofsnes again performed the solo, opening the piece hunched forward, taking carefully measured, powerful steps toward the audience as if shouldering an oppressive burden. As the poem chanted, “Tick, tock, time is running,” Lofsnes looked left and right, mimicking the passage of time on the clock. He made a hammering, industrial motion, starting slowly but quickly building up speed. As he made these motions, Lofsnes also rotated in a circle, his body following the hands of an invisible clock as the harsh conditions in which he worked took their toll. Several times, Lofsnes fell to the ground as if exhausted, only to pull himself up again to continue his mindless, destructive hammering. Through his motions and his facial expressions, it was clear that he yearned for merely a moment of reprieve, but as the poem reminded us, the clock ticked on, demanding ever more bodies, minds and souls.

The final piece of the evening was “Cante Flamenco,” also choreographed by Dudley. This dance was developed in 1944 to honor the widow of a fish peddler and communist leader, who eventually became a member of the Spanish parliament. Along the lines of the messages of the other pieces, the dance paid homage to the power of the individual and the importance of remaining true to one’s self to do what is right.

Hana Ginsburg performed the piece in a full, sweeping Spanish skirt. A warbling guitar and rich Spanish vocal played in the background while she enchanted the gallery. She moved with grace and dignity, incorporating the Spanish style of dance as she strode across the room. However, she soon bent forward as if pressed to the ground by a heavy weight, struggling to throw the burden from her back and rise again. She resumed her graceful movements, as if successfully vanquishing her oppressor. After rising, she performed the rest of the piece defiantly, leaping and swinging her skirt with even more boundless energy. Ginsburg looked heavenward, taking flight as an unstoppable force. When she finished her dance, she turned to the audience, her face set in stone, and crooked her arm into a fist, claiming herself once and for all.