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DANCE REVIEW: Reverence, passion and connection

The Dallas Black Dance Theatre at Jacob's Pillow

The Dallas Black Dance Theater was founded in Texas 45 years ago. According to the Pillow notes by Melanie George, Ann Williams, the company founder, purposefully included “Black” in the name because that year, 1976, was the first year that a non-profit organization could be legally founded by a Black person in Texas.

Forty-five years later, now under the leadership of Melissa Young, the Dallas Black Dance Theatre is a forceful presence in the American dance world. Their work, which focuses especially on the work of Black choreographers and narratives relevant to the African diaspora, is noted for strong ballet technique and the intensity and energy of their performance. These were in strong evidence during their debut performance at Jacob’s Pillow, on Wednesday, August 4 on the Henry J. Lier stage.

The program included three works: Night Run (2003); Face What’s Facing You (2018); and Like Water (2021).

“Night Run,” choreographed by Christopher I. Huggins, explores in three movements the transformation of being as night falls and time seems to be an illusion. The dance opens with six women clad in gold bodices trimmed in black and short black bouncy skirts trimmed in gold, reminiscent of the shine of gold lights in the dark night sky. Six men soon joined them, also clad in black.

The first movement begins somewhat formally and precisely, yet propelled by a flamenco-influenced jazz guitar and dazzling male display, it ends with the women leaping dramatically into the men’s arms. The second movement, over a slow waltz, is a push and pull of slinky seduction and resistance, with the women eventually walking off without the men. Perhaps this is the time to point out that this is a female-founded and -directed company.

From “Night Run.” Drawing: Carolyn Newberger

The third movement explodes with action. The dancers burst onto the stage, the women suddenly sans skirts, in briefs. In the fullness of night, they reveal their bodies, forms exposed, the dance virtuosic and powerful over a propulsive guitar riff punctuated by trumpet bursts, wood block clicks and a barking human voice. Edgy, thrilling, and evocative.

Between this piece and the next, a bit of intermission music cleared the palate, like a spoonful of sorbet between courses at a nice restaurant. In this case, the sorbet was a piano rendition of the jazz standard, “Poinciana.”

“Face What’s Facing You.” Drawing: Carolyn Newberger

The second piece, “Face What’s Facing You,” choreographed by Claude Alexander III in 2018, asks a set of questions: What are your issues? What do they affect? Where does it hurt? How do you get through them?

The dance begins with a reverential set of reflections over a ground of sustained strings, slowly and repetitively sounding overlaid harmonies. The women were clad in simple, gray shirts that flowed over their hips. Their movements, sometimes reflective, sometimes anguished, seemed to supplicate the powers above. Glimpses of their bright red briefs suggested that beneath the distress lay the power and brilliance of their strengths.

Jacob’s Pillow commissioned “Like Water” as the inaugural recipient of the Joan B. Hunter New Work Commission, with these Pillow performances as its world premiere. Choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie, “Like Water” celebrates Black resilience.

As with water, the piece flowed, expanding and contracting, dancers moving together and apart, much as water moves through landscapes, flowing over and around obstacles but also coming back to its essential identity as a fluid, unitary, dynamic body.

From “Like Water.” Drawing: Carolyn Newberger

Especially notable in “Like Water” is the tenderness and bodily connection among the dancers. Men and women engaged in many forms, playfully, saucily, leaping into embrace, drawing themselves to each other tenderly, and in one of the most affecting moments, enduringly.

As one couple sustained their embrace, the company surrounding them communicated multiple moods and changes, leaving and returning to the stage. And there they stood, arms around each other, stopped in time, like a pause in music, signifying everything that endures notwithstanding life’s travails.

The whole company returned to the stage with flowing, sinuous, joyful expression. They formed a line from the embracing couple at the front right of the stage that stretched diagonally back to the left rear, each dancer extending an arm to connect with the dancer ahead, and finally touching the couple in its quiet embrace. The audience could feel in that line the strength of endurance and resilience, stretching back across the stage and beyond, into an unbroken line of family, community, and ancestry from which comes the flow, like water.

As the company circled ebulliently leaping and running off the stage, the audience erupted in cheers.

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