at the Dance Center of Columbia College

January 12

Halfway through the Dance Center’s series, “Present Vision/Past Voice: The African-American Tradition in Modern Dance,” that tradition is becoming harder to define. There’s the easy way, of course: it’s whatever any black modern dancer does. And Joseph Holmes was black, lots of the dancers in the Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Company are black, and Randy Duncan, its current artistic director, is black. But unlike Donald McKayle’s program, performed by the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company last October, JHCDC’s program last Friday was not devoted to the black experience. Nor did the company allude much to an African heritage, unlike Urban Bush Women, also seen last fall at the Dance Center.

The Holmes company seems to be “black” in a different and more elusive way. For starters, JHCDC is generally not afraid of emotion: the highs are higher, the lows are lower. Take Love Not Me, for instance, a recent (1989) piece of Duncan choreography: A woman (Winifred Haun) writhes on a chunky, angular, medieval-looking chair in a shaft of light so pure and blindingly white it seems to have come straight from hell. The harsh lighting and the choreography–which is all asymmetry and diagonals, shoulders askew, arms awry, one leg or the other reaching to make an emphatic but obscure point–reveal a wild woman in a wild state of grief. When the dancer holds her rigidly pointed leg straight up in the air with both hands, it’s as if she were holding a cocked rifle, about to aim and shoot. The piano music, by Allan Segall, is percussive, spare, modern, but entirely dramatic: in this hyperemotional state, every moment seems to bring a new agony.

Haun’s dancing was superb. She didn’t “emote”; her gaze at us was rapt but calm, the focus inward. She moved with a cat’s elasticity and lithe, wicked autonomy. She showed us, with a lover’s carefulness, the details of the choreography: the toes moving, one at a time, to point; the long, strong neck arched back to its fullest extent; the jaw rotating around the axis of the neck. And behind and beneath all the details, the gestures of these extremities, were a torso and a will like iron.

If the woman in Love Not Me is feral, the three women mourners of Oh Mary Don’t You Weep are soldiers. I was happy to see again, and at close quarters, this 1974 Holmes piece. Like Love Not Me, it’s very emotional, but the grief in the work seems stoic because of the character of the movement–rhythmic, often in unison, restrained, simple. Given the religious subject and the music–Aretha Franklin singing gospel with an enthusiastic backup–Holmes might easily have produced a work that was overblown or florid. Instead, by working against his givens, Holmes crafted a small masterpiece of elegant economy.

Tied to blacks’ greater emotional freedom may be the quality I think of as sass–the ability to say “Who cares?” and give the bit to high spirits and aggression. You see it often in lighter-hearted dances, like the two that opened JHCDC’s program, Duncan’s ever-popular Bittersweet AV (1987) and Keith Lee’s new work for the company, Medley (1989).

Medley is performed to the music of the late, great Marvin Gaye; it’s a tribute to both Gaye and Holmes. Yet I found it one of the least “black” on the program–bland, often unimpassioned, and for a tribute, pretty pointless. Too many of its seven sections are made up of uninspired borrowings from the jazz vocabulary, either performed in an uncharacteristically legato style or juxtaposed with the smoother, lighter moves of ballet. Short phrases that seem to go nowhere may be part of the problem, but much of Medley is just plain boring.

Though I’m becoming convinced that a romantic duet may be one of the most difficult things to pull off in dance–they beg for cliches, and even if the cliches aren’t there, the audience will read them in–Medley contains a duet with some more than usually inauthentic moments. (At one point I thought the dancers’ smirks meant they were going to break into hysterical laughter at their own antics.) Medley’s blandness makes its genuine innovations stand out: the vulgarity of Patrick Mullaney’s pelvic thrusts directly at the audience, a big smile on his face; the surprise of Kevin Ware’s whirling in midair from front to back to front prone positions on the floor.

Maybe Lee meant Medley to look “refined” to match Gaye’s high, light, breathy, and deceptively unserious voice. The first section, “What’s Going On,” features some pointedly limp wrists. But Gaye’s falsetto voice had a force and cumulative urgency that are largely missing from Lee’s choreography. The exception is the line dance that closes the final, party-down section, “Keep On Dancin’.” Hey, Gaye was fun. Finally, here, he looks like it.

Plenty of white companies are not short on emotion, plenty have sass. The real black prerogative may be anger, and the social comment that grows out of it. I don’t think of Duncan as an angry man, but anger has licked around the edges of his 1986 Turning Tides.

It’s funny–watching Bittersweet AV this time, I was aware of the dancers’ silence, which made the dance seem light. A puff might have blown it away. But in Turning Tides, the dancers spoke loud and clear. In the solo, “Adrift,” Patrick Mullaney told a long, articulate story about grief, his formidable technique subdued to the purposes of the tale. And I can’t watch the second and final section, “The Storm,” performed by the full company, without thinking of how hard the dancers are working–of the sheer physical labor, the energy, being expended so we’ll go out and do something. The conviction that dance can change the world is incarnate in Turning Tides. That’s a conviction all the best dancers and choreographers pass on.