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The Crossing

Joel Hall Dancers

at the O’Rourke Center for the Performing Arts, through April 21

By Maura Troester

Good dance is like mono-nucleosis, or the spirit of God in an old-time church: contagious. When the gray-haired ladies start shakin’ it in the lobby after the show, you know it’s been a good concert. And that’s the way it was Saturday night after the Joel Hall Dancers’ “The Crossing.” The kids were dancing in the rest room, and the grandmas were dancing in the lobby.

That’s not to say “The Crossing” is a perfect concert, but it’s a powerful concert, a hallelujah, baby, we can dance! affair. I personally let out a little hallelujah because in my mind the evening had threatened to be truly dreadful. “The Crossing” is a chronology of African-American music and dance, and any chronology has the potential to be about as exciting as a professor with some dates, a chalkboard, and a wooden pointer.

What makes this jazz-dance concert so successful isn’t the content but the spirit with which it’s presented. Three years ago the Joel Hall Dancers were a so-so jazz-dance company. They had a bit of flash but not a lot of strength. The company’s trademark was its rubber-band flexibility: each dancer could lift her leg above her head and hold it there; each could perform complicated moves in the splits. Hall’s choreography was a glorified form of club dancing, and compositionally it was a few notches above your basic jazz-studio recital fare. Their performances were always entertaining, however, because the dancers loved to move. That passion was and still is infectious.

With “The Crossing” (and Nuts and Bolts, a jazzy slapstick take on The Nutcracker presented last December), the Joel Hall Dancers seem to have come of age. Hall’s ten performers are stronger, more expressive, and more skilled than they were even a year ago. Hall’s choreography has also become more expressive and complex. In addition, he’s opened the door for some of his longtime company members to choreograph for “The Crossing,” and the results are for the most part satisfying.

The evening begins with Hall’s take on traditional African dance–it’s certainly not pure African, but Merrick Mitchell and Vanessa Truvillion pull it off with grace and keep the audience interested even when the movement fades into repetition. The next piece, Field Songs, not surprisingly depicts the period of African enslavement in the United States. The pleasant surprise is the dance itself. Choreographed by Truvillion (who serves as the company’s associate artistic director) to a number of African-American spirituals, Field Songs is an elegant blend of jazz and traditional modern dance. It has a purity of emotion, a combination of pain and faith in a better world, that is truly uplifting.

The program–nine dances separated by seven smaller transitional dances–could make for a long evening, but the energy level is high and the dances are varied in style and content. The music also keeps the evening moving along. Scott Joplin, Pharoah Sanders, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations: Hall’s company has chosen from the canon of best-loved African-American tunes. Because this music is close to the hearts of most Americans, if the choreography had been weak, the music could have been an invitation to disaster.

But good choreography brings out the best of the music. Nancy Teinowitz’s Jukebox and Truvillion’s Jukebox Grows Soul make the early rock and R & B favorites come alive. Teinowitz, whose choreography has been nominated for a couple of Jeff Awards, tells a great story of silly teenage passions in Jukebox, and the dancers play the sock-hopping teenybops brilliantly: at times the dance is one long laugh. In Truvillion’s Jukebox Grows Soul the music seems to sing right through the dancers’ bodies, and the combination gets the audience singing right along with them. Hall’s The Blues is a showstopping solo for Christina Luzwick, whose love of music and movement is infectious.

Not all the dances are hits, but none is a bomb. Angel Abcede’s Scoundrel Takes a Bride, danced to Joplin’s familiar music, offers his take on the melodrama of the era but isn’t developed enough to get its point across. Mitchell’s Going to a Disco starts off with a bang but quickly becomes repetitious. Yet the dances are entertaining because of the joy the dancers exude. The somewhat abstract transitional dances (called “Crossings”), deftly performed by a trio of women, add a sophistication this company hasn’t always shown. Geoffrey Bushor’s intriguing lighting and Florence Martin’s costumes deepen the evening’s artistic integrity, bringing out the pathos in some dances and the humor in others.

But a lot of this season’s success might be attributable to Pamela Tanis, the company’s new ballet mistress. Tanis has danced with choreographers like Robert Joffrey and George Balanchine, and she seems to have brought out the emotional depth that was dormant in some of the troupe’s earlier shows. With the help of a skilled support staff, Hall has groomed his company into a mature, talented group of dancers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “The Crossing”.