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Shadow's Child

Urban Bush Women

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, June 20-22

New Dances 2002

Melissa Thodos & Dancers

at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, June 21-23

Where the phrase "student visa" used to suggest the furthering of international amity, today it evokes flight training for enemy aliens. And in some quarters, patriotism has been reformulated as a demand to abandon America's many subcultures for the sake of some greater national culture or to consider minority issues just a trivial distraction from fighting the Enemy. In this environment, outsiders are presumed terrorists until proven innocent. "Why do they hate us so much?" asked Time magazine plaintively, returning with relish to its isolationist roots.

A few weeks ago the dance community struck out against the tide. In two different programs drawn from multiple traditions, choreographers and dancers asserted the power of art--especially wordless art--over prejudice.

Urban Bush Women previewed Shadow's Child, a collaboration with the National Company of Song and Dance of Mozambique commissioned in part by the Dance Center of Columbia College. This story dance follows Xiomara, who finds herself on the outside looking in when her family moves from southeastern Africa to the southeastern United States. Shunned by the girls in Tallahassee, the immigrant makes friends with Blue, herself an outsider because of an illness that requires her to avoid sunlight. When Blue gets trapped in a swamp, Xiomara battles an alligator to rescue her friend and win the respect of her new community.

Choreographers Kwame A. Ross and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar take the audience on a parallel journey of discovery. They begin with the music, language, and folkways of Xiomara's home village, strange to most Americans. What's puzzling soon becomes annoying: What are they saying? How can you tell who wins at jump rope? But after a comically telescoped journey to Tallahassee, our roles and Xiomara's are reversed: she's mystified, but we understand perfectly when Blue (the extraordinary Sita Frederick) sings of her plight and when the other Florida girls alternate between childhood clapping games and adolescent booty shaking. Familiarity with the milieu means we can stop examining the movements anthropologically and start experiencing them viscerally, an experience aided by Urban Bush Women's precision and athleticism. Whether jumping rope or dancing hip-hop or portraying insects and birds (with the help of Debby Lee Cohen's witty body-armor puppets), they combine strength with grace, lyricism with rhythm. Shaneeka Harrell, in roles ranging from teenage ringleader to threatening alligator, stands out in an accomplished company: intriguing even when masked, she's irresistible when her face is visible.

After Xiomara's triumph, Ross and Zollar complete her journey and ours with a final celebration in which African-American dancing shares pride of place with Mozambican moves, which no longer look alien. Now that they're familiar, it's hard to imagine a better means for expressing gratitude and joy.

Of course, something other than foreignness initially interfered with my pleasure in Mozambican dance. It seemed a bit faux primitive, as well as overeager to please. If a white choreographer had presented a dance featuring black performers smiling foolishly and shaking their butts, she would have been pilloried, and rightly so, for introducing the servile look of minstrelsy. Someday it may be possible to experience dance without the static of history or race; until then, we need companies like the Urban Bush Women to provide perspective.

New Dances 2002, presented by Melissa Thodos & Dancers, probably investigated other cultures less deliberately. Nonetheless, among nine works by new choreographers, three drew inspiration from Western ideas of the Muslim East. In the midst of what the president tactfully described as a "crusade" against Islamic fundamentalism, such critical artistic attention to our view of the Other is striking.

Altin Naska's Take Five, dedicated to the Turkish people and originally performed in Turkey, is a witty send-up of Western notions of belly dancing. Ruedi Arnold, Paul Christiano, and the choreographer himself portray circus-poster strong men (complete with handlebar mustaches) who respond to Tarah Brown's harem pants, glittery bra, and sexy hip-shaking moves; among other movements, they roll up into shoulder stands to suggest a trio of person-size erections. Striding and preening to Ferruh Yarkin and Paul Desmond's Middle Eastern-inflected version of Dave Brubeck's theme song, the men recall--and by exaggeration undermine--every Hollywood stereotype of the "inscrutable East," from Rudolph Valentino in his tent to Yul Brynner in his palace.

Amy Page's Ustad also uses a variant of harem attire, in this case slit pants and tie-back halters. But the piece attains power only in the final image, a subtle but unmistakable struggle suggesting that orthodox Islam's constraint of women is the subject at hand. Two women in white and four in brown strike odalisque poses to music (by Tala Matrix) that sounds like the chants by which Muslim faithful are called to prayer. These half-clad women offer an ironic tribute to a faith whose most conservative elders veil women and jail them for displaying their arms. But the piece also provides a useful reminder that the concept "Arab" has undergone many transformations since it gained currency in the early 20th century as shorthand for ungoverned sexuality. Like Naska, Page uses stereotyped moves, including one that alludes to the walk shown in profile on pharaonic pots; but here they seem less a comment on the poverty of Western understanding than a concession to the poverty of the choreographer's imagination.

An excerpt from Sarita Smith Childs's Let Me In borrows its vocabulary from Indian dance, including the distinctive head bob framed by the arms. While the piece interestingly combines emotional and physical intensity, like most of the evening's large ensemble pieces it lacks sharpness, clearly needing more rehearsal.

The concert included three other noteworthy dances. With The Party, Carlos Gonzalez simultaneously honors Jerome Robbins's "Dance at the Gym" from West Side Story and the Latin culture that inspired it. The choreographer refreshes the conventional boys-over-here, girls-over-there arrangement by using twice as many women as men, and he sustains momentum by pairing the nine ensemble members in every possible combination as they ring changes on salsa, cha-cha, and tango. It's an exhilarating conclusion to the evening.

Amy Michelle Wilkinson's My Life Closed Twice is a clever reimagining of Firebird to excerpts from the Bach Cello Suites. Jeanette Buell, Stephanie Martinez, and Erin Parsley, in black with red scarves at waist and tail, look for all the world like conventional ballerina birds, but their movements suggest not passion or tragedy but ill temper at being cooped up. Isolating shoulders, hips, and head in mechanical movements that are fussy only when the dancers want them to be, these three make it clear they know why the caged bird bites.

Wilkinson's Slip Knot lacks the unity that makes My Life Closed Twice so satisfying--but the piece is simply not as bite sized. Again she uses numbingly familiar music (here a New Age staple by Thomas Newman) to new effect, and again she alludes to another dance, in this case Gerald Arpino's Light Rain. With its fluid contrasts of couples and ensemble, and with powerful images of intimacy in both contexts--two dancers breathing as one, the group ebbing and flowing as a single organism--Slip Knot should reward repeated viewing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cheryl Mann, Jenny Lester.

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