“Throughout history, our people have been able to survive, through dance,” says Emerita Emerencia, who plays the role of a storyteller guiding the audience through various dances of the African Diaspora in the Dance Immersion Showcase Presentation’s Saturday matinee. Eight works were programmed, with the matinee offering for children an abbreviated version of the evening performances. As a not-for-profit organization, Dance Immersion cultivates and promotes both professional and aspiring dance artists working in different genres of what is sometimes referred to as “black dance”. Included in this year’s presentation were three solo works, a duet and four ensemble dances with styles ranging from North American modern dance, hip hop and Afro-Caribbean to Congolese rhumba, Ivorian Coupé Decallé/Prudencia and Soukous.
Among the strongest works presented were two solos choreographed and performed by Dana Michel with music composed by Ghislain Poirier. Michel, who lives in Montréal, uses a unique movement vocabulary in a modern-dance expressionist manner. Her swinging arms, the forward and back thrust of her torso, her bouncing jumps and stamping feet seem reminiscent of West African dance steps, but extracted from their traditional framework, and with an entirely different rhythmic structure. Both the first work, “Critical Path Method”, and the second, “The Greater the Weight”, are intensely athletic dances conveying a sense of personal struggle and, in Michel’s square-on stare at us from the front of the stage, a challenge as well. We see a young, insistent woman asking more from life, demanding that it be big and exciting. She is driven, pushing herself physically against the audience. It is as if she has more energy and emotion than the immediate moment on the stage can contain. The storyteller’s prologue in the matinee performance tells us that violence is not always bad, and that the violence in this dance is the only way the dancer can express the feelings she keeps inside. Although the emotionality of Michel’s work may seem at times like the histrionics of youth, her dances are gripping to watch and choreographically extraordinary.
To see Learie McNicolls dance is like watching the sinuous stretch of pulled taffy. His lithe body moves with an elastic fluidity and seemingly easy control. However, in “Underworld — 7”, the work performed for Dance Immersion, he dances less than he talks, and his words are not as captivating as his style of movement. It begins with the jazzy clamour of a live, on stage band with trombone, drums and bass. McNicolls appears vaguely in the dark, close to the audience and leaning against a metal support beam. He wears a cream coloured, tailored suit, a dress hat and bow tie, and though the first few moments with the band are awkward, the musicians soon find their groove, providing McNicolls with an aural set for what seems to be a period piece from the 1940s or 1950s. The text tells about a father-son relationship and a journey back to a starting point that has remained present all the while, but the words ramble on. McNicolls is a fine artist, but in “Underworld — 7”, the material he draws explicitly from his years of psychotherapy are too personal. I keep wishing he’d dance more.
Words are used more sparingly in the opening duet, “Workology”, by Lincoln Shand. To begin, Shand and his partner Louis Laberge-Côté follow the familiar choreographic device of moving slowly against the quicker tempo of the music, which makes the dance rely on a minimalist aesthetic that doesn’t always provide something artistically interesting to see. Happily, Shand doesn’t get stuck on this one idea. The dance is literally about being boxed in, and ostensibly about two men going batty in the soul-destroying work of a mailroom. Alternately, Shand and Laberge-Côté respond to one another playfully, aggressively and then also tenderly in a mysterious section near the end. At times their movements almost substitute for words in the pantomime gestures that connect the two characters as sensitive souls finding ways to survive their difficult situation. One of the best moments comes when the two dancers are standing inside separate wooden crates. They respond to each other’s movements as if some magic connects them.
The first half of the program ended with the urban dance group Baby Boyz performing “My Story”. Once known as Skylz Come Ez, the Boyz have been around for over four years entertaining school kids, among others, with their rambunctiously fun, break dancing, and hip-hop-style urban dance. “My Story” begins with a young man stretched out on the floor in front of a television set, listening to Toronto news about shootings and violence in the city. He falls asleep and what unfolds can be interpreted as his dream. Hard to describe because it is so varied, the Boyz move through a range of vocabulary from voguing to hip hop, jazz and corny pantomine performed to snippets of rap and hip hop music. They make fun of themselves and perform dance quotes by famous characters like Michael Jackson. Their faces are hilariously expressive, their movements imaginative and comical. Their clever antics, tricks and virtuosic gymnastic moves provide an image of urban youth as self-aware, creative, dedicated to their art and wonderfully generous towards their audience.
The second half of the program included three ensemble works: “Blu: A Celebration of Life”, performed by the Caribbean Dance Theatre; “Redemption” by Natasha Eck, performed by a group of five dancers including the choreographer; and “Club Afrique”, performed by Nouvel Exposé. Choreographically, the first two of these works were a mix of jazz, modern and Afro-Caribbean movement. Although neither piece stood out on the program as a whole, their best moments were their simplest. When dancers commit so wholeheartedly both to the music and to the movements they perform, even if the choreography is somewhat weak, they can maintain the audience’s interest. The distinctive beauty and style of each of these dancers was a pleasure to watch. The last of the three works provided an upbeat finish to the program with its lively mix of popular African rhythms. With smiling faces, the women swung their hips, shook their behinds and waved their arms alluringly, beckoning us to join in the spirit of joy and happy sensuality created by their dance.
Although this year’s Dance Immersion wasn’t the slickest show in town, and though it was also far too poorly attended, the performers worked hard, handling their difficult situation professionally. Next year’s presentation promises to be better. It is scheduled for January as part of the annual conference for the International Association of Blacks in Dance (IABD), which is to be held in Toronto. This event is significant for several reasons. It is the first time that the association will meet outside the United States and it offers artists the opportunity to perform for an international audience, savvy in the dances of the African Diaspora. Further, Canadian artists and scholars will have the chance to observe, discuss and collaborate with artists and scholars from Africa, France, England, the United States, and elsewhere. More information about this event can be found on the IABD homepage: http://www.howard.edu/collegefinearts/iabdassociation/Home.html.