This year marks the twentieth anniversary of dance Immersion, an organization recognized for its steady engagement in producing, promoting and showcasing dancers and dances of the African diaspora. For the occasion, founder and Program Director Vivine Scarlett brought together two North American companies, Kevin A. Ormsby’s KasheDance (Toronto) and Canadian-trained choreographer and scholar Zelma Badu-Younge’s Azaguno (Athens, Ohio), whose presented works are analogous in parts yet contrasting in others.
Presented at Toronto’s Enwave Theatre on April 4 – 5, Expressions Now was an ambitious production. Over the course of a single ninety-minute evening, numerous bold staging elements appeared in rapid succession, creating a near-overwhelming blur of hard-to-connect ideas and images. Traditional Chinese fans snapped open to create a rhythm, live body painting, an army of handbags, a four-piece drumming band, an oversized bright-red umbrella bouncing its way down through the audience, male nudity and countless intricate costumes were only a few of the constituents introduced.
A selection of KasheDance’s repertoire opened the show. Although his three pieces are individually credited in the evening’s program, Ormsby opted to weave them together and create one continuous stream of choreography. First were excerpts of Recalcitrare, a 2011 group work that explores resistance to authority, most specifically the authority of classicism in dance, art and music. Perhaps because the piece is only presented in parts, the intended premise here does not come across clearly. The vocabulary is often codified, featuring ballet-derived pirouettes, attitudes and high jumps, somewhat confusingly reinforcing the notion that standards and authority are to be obeyed, rather than questioned as per the choreographer’s declared intent.
The ensemble is still executing the opening work when Ke-ashe (Interludes within), Ormsby’s self-performed solo, also from 2011, is introduced. A man in business attire impassively walks straight across stage, leaving a wooden chair behind, seemingly oblivious to the energetic dancing taking place all around him. As the ensemble eventually clears, the lone chair, in a soft pool of light, becomes the focal point. Ormsby enters, carrying a briefcase and begins moving in relationship to the chair, at times using it to sit in a dejected stance, at others, masterfully manipulating it, the prop a clear metaphor for his internal struggles. As the piece evolves, Ormsby progressively sheds his conventional business clothing to reveal multi-colour painted skin, eventually reaching full nudity. A powerful mover, his suppleness and agility are revealed, his vulnerability and strength simultaneously embodied.
The next component, 5…, follows, and KasheDance’s ensemble returns to perform three blended five-minute excerpts from Ormsby’s body of work of the last five years. The use of space, phrasing and dancer-to-dancer relationships resurface from Recalcitrare, the choreographer’s compositional preferences suddenly made obvious. After many entrances and exits and much locomotion, the dancers congregate and the stage morphs into a club-like environment. Ormsby’s performers’ love for dancing is palpable and contagious by that point, and it is with this uplifting image that KasheDance’s portion of the evening comes to a close.
Azaguno’s Africa Meets Asia opens with a minimal and contemplative tableau, in stark dynamic contrast to the sustained energetic saturation displayed earlier. Indeed, Zelma Badu-Younge’s new piece comes in choreographic vignettes, stretched across three percussion-based musical movements that were performed live from the upstage balcony under Paschal Yao Younge’s direction. As its title prefaces, the large, multi-ethnic ensemble work delves into African-Asian fusion, incorporating an impressive array of divergent expressive arts into one single piece. This time, the stated intent is clearly addressed and coherently perceived.
With each vignette, the audience is introduced to the idea of fusion from a different compositional entry point, the culture-specific elements at times blending; at times layering; at times dialoguing. Africa Meets Asia’s overarching idea is one of energetic progression: sound, movement and costuming are modest as the work begins, and extravagant by the time it reaches its conclusion.
Overall, the piece is entertaining and, at moments, awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, Azaguno’s members’ performance and technical abilities vary widely from one dancer to the next and, at times — especially in moments of unison — the eye is drawn to this discrepancy. Similar gaps are also noteworthy in Ormsby’s works, for which a homogeneous understanding of the works’ emotional intent had perhaps not been consolidated among cast members prior to the performance.
Visually varied, energetically filled and content heavy, Expressions…Now was an ambitious enterprise: the sheer amount of dance material that both companies had to retain and perform for the event was impressive, their collective and individual rhythmical abilities, humbling, and their physical stamina, jaw dropping. Considering that it came in celebration of dance Immersion’s twentieth anniversary, the showcase was hugely successful. Rarely do dance events in Toronto generate such festive, palpable energy, or rally such communal enthusiasm from their audiences.