at the Dance Center of Columbia College

October 12-14

It may not be possible to watch the work of black choreographers in this country and not see it as political, as an outsider’s statement about American culture. America’s ugly treatment of its black population has to affect our experience of virtually every performance by a black American artist. Yet I don’t think we should see black dance as an “ethnic” form–it has too long a history here, has too much shaped and been shaped by the “American” dance tradition to be seen as distinct in the sense that flamenco or East Indian or West African dance is distinct.

So how one sees black modern dance is bound to be an issue in the Dance Center’s series this year, “Present Vision/Past Voice: The African-American Tradition in Modern Dance.” The opening program was a brilliant choice: three early works by black choreographer Donald McKayle, performed by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. Not only is McKayle’s voice part of the black tradition–his works precede, in a similar vein, those of Alvin Alley–but his vision sets black culture apart at the same time that his generosity makes it available. His art is distinctly political, yet you feel it’s driven by goodwill; there was plenty of grief in what I saw, but remarkably little bitterness.

Games (1951), which opened the program, at first seems light, almost naive, but that’s a setup: the tragic end is both more shocking and more moving because the dance focuses so intently on children. McKayle uses traditional music–playground chants, folk songs, spirituals–sung live onstage, and that makes the dance seem all the more spontaneous and human. (Sheila Ramsey and Lourin Plant’s a cappella singing made the spoken word seem a sorry thing–high-pitched, brittle, and false.)

The movement in Games has a flung quality, like children’s gracelessness when they’re playing. And the Dayton dancers, seven of them here, convey a joyful sense of the body as an instrument of play: you can throw an arm, out into space any old way–so what?–with the certainty that it will come back to you somehow. The children here, like real kids, are rambunctious, competitive, imaginative, and intensely social.

You sense McKayle’s own invention and vitality in the kids’ tricks and roughhousing. One boy snatches up two cans and proceeds to use them as binoculars, a machine gun, horns, six-guns in holsters, and earrings (with childlike curiosity, he also tries out what it might feel like to be a woman, swiveling his hips and preening before an imaginary mirror). When the three girls come on with an imaginary jump rope, McKayle makes a neat allusion to African dance: the rope twirlers are like the drummers, who provide the beat while they do a dance all their own; the jumper-like the dancer is their willing servant.

As Games goes on, it becomes darker. A lullaby is the occasion for one woman to hold and comfort another who’s playing a baby: her strong abdominal contraction and arms and legs fluttering in the air suggest an infant who’s inconsolable, perhaps from hunger. A song about picking cotton is paired with a solo for a man with clasped hands. This simple motif at first seems obvious: it indicates enforced work, captivity. But in later sections McKayle expands it in some remarkable ways. Clasped hands also pray, and clasped hands drawn to the chest–especially to the tune of “Shortnin’ Bread”–can be a child’s artless indication of love.

The sudden bit of racist violence that closes Games, plunging a loving and innocent community into grief, is a brutal shock. I’d like to be able to say this ending is sensational or melodramatic, but how can it be when 40 years later kids are still murdered for having the wrong color skin in the wrong neighborhoods?

Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (1959) is darker yet. McKayle’s way, evident in Games, of tying movement to gesture without making it a hidebound mime act has even more force and urgency in this later work. Seven male dancers–a chain gang–enter linked, throwing their heads back and forward in unison in an arc that suggests but does not delineate full-body hammering. Many of the men’s movements in the beginning are repetitive, back and forth, almost wavelike, in a way that doesn’t look quite voluntary but is still muscled. That look strongly evokes the rhythm, the monotony, and to some extent the joy of physical labor. But the fact that the men move in unison and that their hands are often clasped behind their backs suggests enforced conformity, a lack of freedom.

In Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder McKayle has produced another work of rhetorical brilliance. Again he uses traditional vocal music, this time recorded, and with the same softening effect as in Games. The rhetoric aims to make us feel the waste of black manhood, and everything in the dance contributes to that effect, from the choreography for the single woman dancer to the men’s costumes, which are nothing more than nondescript pants. What you see are men’s torsos, with all their heartbreaking strength and capability, that are not free. Once again the Dayton company does what it appears to do best–makes feeling the source of the movement. These torsos are expressive, not precise.

To produce the sense of loss he wants in this dance, McKayle must make us feel the force of men’s passion for women. On the evening I was there, Sheri Williams danced the female role eloquently, and the choreography for the women–well, it’s perfect. Economical, to the point, but full of feeling. The first female solo brims with sustained, sensual movement, yet the dancer also embodies the men’s ideals–she’s a fitting object for their dreams. In a later duet she’s coquettish, and her dancing with the man expresses all the freedom to give and take love that the men in prison lack. Another duet conveys a man and woman’s shared agony, not joy–but at least it’s shared. In fact every time the woman’s onstage, you’re made to feel the man’s deprivation. That loss is tragic enough; the killing that closes Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder seems unnecessary, though it’s a fine emblem of the ultimate in emasculation.

The last work on the program, District Storyville (1961), celebrates the African-American origins of jazz (the music is a recorded composite of New Orleans jazz, original music by Dorothea Freitag, and traditional funeral and parade marches). The dance opens with a section called “Funeral Function,” a lugubrious march to the graveyard followed by a triumphant “homeward strut.” Most of the rest of the dance is devoted to what comes in between birth and death–sex, music, and money. In the next section, “Sporting House Saga,” McKayle introduces us to a large cast of broad, colorful characters who have the personalities to go with their funky names: Willie the Pleaser, Copper Scent, Stingaree. Among the most memorable are the Countess (Debbie L. Blumden’s small, sleek, elegant head and magnificent shoulders and arms make her perfect for the part) and Little Lou, a barefoot jack-of-all-trades at the brothel who aspires to jazz greatness (Eric J. Miles in Little Lou’s solo, “King of the Zulus,” gave the dance’s sexiest performance).

In District Storyville McKayle not only celebrates the black tradition and how it’s been passed on, but plays with the “disreputability” of the black demimonde and the stereotype of blacks’ high spirits. In fact, District Storyville is so broad and upbeat that I wondered how it would have looked outside the context of the earlier, darker dances. Unfortunately it doesn’t have the emotional and dynamic contrasts that enable Games and Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder to turn some indefinable corner and give your heart a good hard squeeze. What it does have is McKayle’s sense of a life so strong it can’t be kept down, and that’s an inspired way to begin a year-long look at black modern dance.