Dimensions Dance Theatre Celebrates Forty: The Joy Was Riotous

13 Oct

Arriving at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts October 5, the audience line was appreciable. After joining the end, I found myself near two women armed with painted gourds with handles. The night was one of San Francisco’s balmiest and the two women were on the ready.

We waited in line until the M.J. Brass Boppers, the seven-man New Orleans band of natives, emerged from the gallery area to escort us into the Forum whose movable risers were fashioned U-shape for the audience. Such a scurry for seats -energetic, happy pandemonium! It set the tone for the performance for the dozen dancers and Marvin K. White’s strong declarations at three junctures in the program. And the drums – what would an African-American dance program be without drums! The lead drummers were Herve Makaya, Teber Milandou, and Kiazi Malonga, but by no means all; add two strong singers Sulkary Valverde and Tossie Long.

An even ten dances constituted the opening half of the program featuring contributions by Deborah Vaughan, Dimensions founder and artistic director, four, from 1996, 2002, 2005, and 2011. Elendar Barnes’ My People, led off the program, a 1973 work reflecting the influence of modern dance on a new ensemble. Danced with felicity, it posessed none of the punch of the subsequent dances, but demonstrated that ability outweighed physical silhouette in Vaughan’s selection of interpreters. Numbers by Peniel Guerrier, four by Vaughan, Garth Fagan and Latanya d. Tigner plus Abdoulaye Sylia followed prior to the Pause. A 2011 contribution danced and spoken by Denice Simpson was included. Nicely delivered, the text’s vocabulary was too abstracted to be reflected in motion.

Most striking in this section was the dancer Erik Lee; his initial jump from crouched position and with raised knees was startling. Did I see correctly? Fortunately, Lee’s phenomenal elevation was demonstrated twice later, giving the audience his motivation added to his amazing technical prowess.

Before the pause, the final number was Isicathulo, “The Boot Dance” /Amatshe “The Can Dance” with choreography by Dingani Lelokoane. This dance, South African in origin, had the US debut I witnessed at the Atlanta Cultural Olympics in 1996. Originating amongst South African miners, the collective expression still is startling and strong.

Throughout this section musical interludes were provided by Mohamad Kouyate, Djema Dorsainvil and James Rudisill, included Kouyate with a Balafon solo.

With the pause, the rythmnic and cultural complexities of the African heritage, continental as well as the diaspora, registered how pervasive, penetrating as well as nuanced the heritage is. Vaughan’s intention was to have us become aware of it; her aim was unerringly accurate, particularly with the confidence, seemingly inexhaustible energy and spirit of the dancers.

Rhythm of Life/Down The Congo Line commenced with White’s eloquent summary of the multiple cultural strains which created the luxurious, earthy, sensual expression of the African heritage in the New World. Latanya d. Tigner created a signal work in The Last Dance where the New Orleans traditional funeral celebrates the deceased by dancing around and with the coffin, before the ritual visit to familiar places and the final march to the cemetery, accompanied by the M.J. Brass Boppers. Harold Wilson, the wielder of the bass drum, in silhouette at times evoked the image of a figure from Toulouse-Lautrec.

From New Orleans it was south across the Gulf of Mexico to Cuba where Jose “Cheo” Rojas’ choreography featured Justin Sharlman, a strong vocal by Sulkary Valverde and musicians Sandy Perez, Gustavo Ramos and Vladirmir Linares.

Traveling further south to Brazil Isaura Oliveira, with Danila Portugal, Wagner Profeta dos Santos, Julio Remelexo Barreto and Oliveira himself danced that adaptation of the Afro-Brazilian forms Quilombola, Roda de Caboclo and Maracatu.

With Marvin White, and singers Tossie Long and Sulkary Valvere, we moved back to Congo Square, where white New Orleans allowed Africans to congregate on the Sabbath and give voice to their traditions, perhaps one of the most singularly humane collective decision among slave owners in the South, first French, then Spanish and finally American.

Again Jose “Cheo” Rojas choreographed the Makuta and Carnivali Followed by Vaughan’s piece “In The Square” and another Oliveira piece “Maracutu” before Dimensions released us for an intermission.

Herve Makaya, a Congolese drummer, came here initially at the invitation of the San Francisco International Dance Festival, and decided to stay on in the vibrant, sympathetic circle of African drumming in the East Bay. Vukana led the post-Intermission with his drumming partners and four traditional dances: Kingoli, Ndanda, Mbende and Zebola. Each of the drummers displayed their amazing mastery of complex rhythms with some shenanigans thrown in. Makaya’s drumming, his impromptu dancing with, around and literally over it was dazzling.

The finale, St. Ann and N. Rampart Street, premiered at this year’s Ethnic Dance Festival, was repeated here in a format less constrained by a proscenium arch. The sound level was splitting to the ear drum but it didn’t deter audience members dancing exuberantly to the infectious renditions of New Orleans jazz. Despite Katrina’s devastation and subsequent problems, Dimensions Dance Theatre and MJ’s Brass Boppers vividly testified to the addage, New Orleans is a place traditionally “which care forgot.”

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