at the Dance Center of Columbia College

February 23 and 24

Jubilation! Dance Company, like ISO and the Bobs last week at the Civic Center, was cheered heartily by its audience. This Brooklyn-based troupe, the fourth company to appear in the Dance Center’s series “Present Vision/Past Voice: The African- American Tradition in Modern Dance,” has none of ISO’s mocking detachment and free-ranging hostility, however. What it has, in abundance, is commitment–to social ideals, to a community, to each other. That shows in its exuberant but somewhat monochromatic style of dance.

Jubilation’s dancing has all the energetic, striving spirituality of gospel music, but lacks the dynamic shading. There were few soft or quiet moments in this concert, even when the music was slow or mournful. And the consistent use of short popular songs–from Pat Metheny to Prince to Roberta Flack–and the consistent mugging contributed to the sense of sameness.

Kevin Jeff, Jubilation’s founder and artistic director, choreographed three of the four works performed the evening I was there. Junto (1989) is a dance of celebration that successfully combines ballet’s reach and theatrical, finished look with the freer impetus of modern and Afro-Caribbean dance. Flack (1984) is a dance in six movements that traces stages of disintegration in the black community. The disruption and despair produced by racism lead to “sad young men” deadening themselves with drugs and drink. Young women may try to save them, but ultimately must say good-bye or retreat into an isolated religiosity. Disaffection between the sexes leads to transitory, impoverished sexual encounters, but paradoxically the isolated and uncertain relations between the sexes can produce a deep-rooted compassion. Dedication (1982), made in memory of the children murdered in Atlanta, seems as didactic as Flack but the details of the argument are less clear.

Flack is full of arresting moments–the dancers’ shouts during “Trying Times,” the men’s staggering in unison and stuffing or pouring things into their mouths in “Sad Young Men.” But other moments, meant to be arresting, slide into melodrama: the randomly stabbing arms when Roberta Flack sings about “confusion,” the startled, guilty looks at the audience when she sings about “running from the truth,” the gathering around a fallen comrade in “For All We Know.” Jeff also relies too heavily on the dancers’ facial expressions to communicate meaning: in “Train,” we might never have understood that the dancers aren’t having fun (their movement is so buoyant) if it weren’t for their grim, stone-faced expressions.

Jubilation’s rehearsal director, Anthony Marshall, choreographed In His Name, a solo for Jeff in memory of a Jubilation dancer who died (Aaron Dugger). I found it an odd blend of conviction and theatrical manipulation. The lighting, by Christian Epps, is starkly dramatic. The subject–death and rebirth–has a natural importance. Jeff’s dancing was about as fully felt and yet precise as it could possibly be. His curious bow–which seemed to say “you’ll travel this way, too”–was very affecting. Yet I felt manipulated. Jeff was clothed only in an orange jockstrap–and I suppose maybe we do meet our maker naked. But it’s not generally a public performance. The dance’s showmanship may have been what put me off.

Jubilation’s strength is the wild energy of its full-throttle dancing. This is commitment made visible by superbly conditioned bodies–I’ve never seen such strong backs, arms, and necks, especially in women dancers. The movements for the torso, whether simple breathing or a whole phrase that eloquently unwinds the body, are tellingly beautiful. So much passionate belief onstage is rare and lovely. But the flood of feeling that rushes through Jubilation has more force than direction. It doesn’t need to be dammed, it needs to be channeled. A few backwaters and eddies might be appreciated.