Lot’s of great news has been coming out of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre (DBDT) organization the last couple of weeks, including today’s announcement that Melissa Young will be taking over as artistic director.
Young has been with the company for 25 years and has experience in all facets of the organization. We meet while on the board of directors for the Dance Council about 10 years ago and her commencement and passion for dance and DBDT was as strong then as it is now. She is patient. She is kind. But she also knows when to lay down the law. As they say, third times the charm, so I wish Young good luck in new position!
DBDT also announced last week that it has been selected to receive funding through the Communities Connecting Heritage (CCH) exchange program for its new cultural heritage project with Macedonian filmmakers. Only five artistic organizations in the nation where chosen to participate in this cultural exchange program.
Entitled Widening the Lens, DBDT and Association MakeDox from Macedonia will work together with 12 African-American dancers and 12 Macedonian filmmakers to create a 50-minute documentary exploring and celebrating African-American culture through dance and Romani heritages music. DBDT will incorporate aspects of the project into its Spring Celebration Series in addition to holding three free screenings of the film in July.
What a unique experience for these dancers. Not only do they get to travel around the world exploring different dance cultures, but they will also get to see how a dance documentary is put together from start to finish.
And right behind this announcement came the news that DBDT has invited Joy Bollinger, the newly appointed Artistic Director of Bruce Wood Dance, to set a piece for the company’s annual Director’s Choice performance coming up in November.
According the media release, Bollinger’s new work, This Time, is a reflection of the fleeting nature of the time in her relationships with her children and grandmother and the constant desire to steal moments and capture memories. If its anything like her previous works then audiences are in for large scale visuals, dynamic group sections and a roller coaster of emotions.
Dallas Black Dance Theatre leaps into a new era with Stephen Mills’ Bounce and two works by new Artistic Director Briget L. Moore at its annual Spring Celebration Series.
Dallas — A rollercoaster of emotions, movement that changes in texture, weight and dimension, and jumps – lots of them. With its strong classical foundation and pas de deux like couplings, Ballet Austin Artistic Director Stephen Mills’Bounce is a detour from what we normally see from Dallas Black Dance Theatre(DBDT). Well known for presenting works that honor the African American culture and related dance styles, it’s easy to forget that DBDT is also well-versed in modern, jazz and classical dance forms. The dancers prove this in Bounce, which will be performed alongside works by Twyla Tharp and DBDT’s new Artistic Director Bridget L. Moore at the company’s annual Spring Celebration Series, May 19-21, at the Charles and Dee Wyly Theatre in the Arts District.
In Bounce, the dancers’ strong classical training can be seen in their port de bras, controlled arabesques and jumps with deep plies, which Mills cleverly fused with grounded foot work, curvaceous spine movements and elastic body positions for a more contemporary look. And with no plotline or hidden messages to decipher the audience can just sit back and enjoy the way the dancers’ bodies interpret the music, which is an original score by Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds. Reynolds’ work has been featured in numerous movie soundtracks, including Before Midnight, Bernie and A Scanner Darkly and he is one of Mills’ favorite collaborators for original dance music.
Mills has always had a penchant for all things musical. Growing up in a small town in Kentucky, Mills’ extracurricular activities included piano lessons and drama club. It wasn’t until his first year of college when one of his theater requirements included him taking a ballet class that he discovered his passion for the art form. From there he jumped into every class he could find, including ballet, modern, jazz, tap and even African dance at the Ailey School. He would later join The Harkness Ballet and The American Dance Machine in New York before moving on to work with Ohard Naharin, Katherine Posin and Mark Dendy.
Since becoming artistic director of Ballet Austin in 2000, Mills has created a number of innovative and memorable works for the company, including Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew and Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project, his two-year, community-wide human rights collaboration. Most recently, Mills was awarded the Steinberg Award, the top honor at Le Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur International Choreographic Competition for One/the body’s grace.
Mills’ sophisticated understanding of music can be seen throughout Bounce from the opening sequence where the dancers bounce side-to-side to the syncopated beats of a xylophone; to his visually compelling use of movement canons and moments of stillness in the quartet with Claude Alexander, III, Zion Pradier, Sean J. Smith and De’ Anthony Vaughan accompanied by the harmonious tinkering of a piano. While I didn’t get to see Mills at the rehearsal of Bounce I attended last week at DBDT’s main studio in downtown Dallas I did get to see international choreographer and Dallas native Bridget L. Moore in the studio – an opportunity I have been looking forward to since it was announced she would be taking over as artistic director earlier this year.
I was eager to see how she would interact with the dancers now that she has become a permanent fixture in the organization. She has worked with the company on many different occasions, but it has always been in a visiting artist capacity. While I wasn’t surprised with her straight-forward, hands-on approach during notes, I was inspired by her thoughtful individual critiques, which were focused on helping the dancers continue to growth artistically for the long haul and not just in the moment.
A prime example was her feedback for Alyssa Harrington regarding one of her duet sections with Alexander. “You have such beautiful lines, but there’s still more you can do to bring us in,” Moore says. “Push to elongate more and reach behind that knee. Don’t just rely on the lines you have.” The movement phrase Moore was referring to is when Harrington developes her right leg up as she leans into Alexander before she springs back onto that leg in an arabesque hold with her arms reaching forward. Harrington’s mind/body connection was much stronger after hearing Moore’s comments. She was able to stretch through her movement more, which did indeed draw my eye in.
One of the things Moore wanted the group as a whole to continue working on is their performance quality. Because the work keeps bouncing back and forth between various emotions and moods such as anger, longing, flirtation and joy, it’s imperative that the dancers remain in the zone if they want the piece to keep the audience engaged from start to finish. “You have to continue building your performance quality while also executing the movement at the same time. You need to figure out how to connect more with the movement and your partner so the piece reads well.”
Dallas Black Dance Theatre pushes itself to new heights in Jamal Story’s aerial ballet The Parts They Left Out, part of the company’s Cultural Awareness Series.
Dallas — Expectations were high as a small group of us gathered at Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s main studio back in December to watch the company perform segments from Jamal Story’s new aerial ballet, The Parts They Left Out, a continuation of his duet What to Say? Notes on Echo and Narcissus, which the company performed at its Spring Celebration in May 2015. Looking around the space I had a feeling Story was going to surpass my aerial expectations when I saw three different apparatuses suspended from the ceiling versus just one last year.
Positioned upstage, stage right was a swing with a wooden seat where company member Sean J. Smith was testing his balance as he shifted from a standing to a seated position. Two long strips of red fabric were hanging unattended downstage, stage left while a familiar white hammock made of silk was situated in the center of the room. In an interview with Story the day before I learned that each aerial apparatus plays a significant role in his retelling of three well known Greek myths. “In this rendition I deal with Echo/Narcissus, Orpheus/Eurydice and Hades/Persephone, and all three of those duet relationships in a much bigger context.” He adds, “I knew there was no way I could tell all three stories with just the hammock so I added in two more. One of the new apparatuses is a swing made out of silk that will serve as a throne for Hades and the other is two strains of red silk that will serve as the pathway in and out of the underworld for Eurydice and Orpheus.”
The preview began with a section from the underworld where Hades (Smith) remained perched on the swing while company member Kayah Franklin (Persephone) frantically tried to escape from his clutches. Smith’s movement on the swing was minimal, slight weight changes and body movements, which was in direct contrast to Franklin’s off-centered body lines and compulsive foot work. Story’s jazz and modern background showed through the dancers various body swings, back arches and pelvic tilts.
Audiences are going to be blown away when they see what Story has created with the two long red silks in Orpheus and Eurydice’s duet. As the music built two dancers manipulated the material around themselves while pulling the silks across the stage creating an incline, which Hana Delong than began to climb, strategically weaving and wrapping her body in the material as she made her way to the top where Keon K. Nickie was waiting for her. You don’t even realize Delong is prepping herself for aerial trick until she lets go of the material, unraveling to the ground in a heart-stopping death drop. It’s moments such as this one that emphasize Story’s uniqueness as an aerial artist. For him, it’s not about showcasing the build up to the tricks, it’s about creating smooth and cohesive transitions throughout the work.
“Most aerial work focuses on the ta-da moment and what I want to do, and what I did in the first duet is to eliminate the ta-da moment by creating a context for why the person does whatever he or she does. It is extremely difficult because in an ordinary apparatus circus presentation you’re just doing the tricks for the ta-da effect. I’m not interested in that here.” He continues, “So now I have to think about why she does that wrap and the drop and what does that have to do with the story we are telling. As long as I stay focused on what I am trying to do, then it works out.”
When it came time to teach certain aerial skills to the company members using the three different apparatuses Story says the challenge this time was the fact he didn’t have a lot of time to workshop the material on the actual silks. But he says this challenge was balanced out by the fact he was creating the movement on the dancers unlike the Echo and Narcissus duet that was created on him, which he later transferred to DBDT. And speaking of the duet, audiences will be excited to hear that Claude Alexander III and Alyssa Harrington will be reprising their roles as Narcissus and Echo in this continuation.
The couple has put the extra time they have been given to work on the duet to good use which was evident through their clean and confident handling of the material and more pronounced emotional connection with one another during this rehearsal. In the continuation audiences will get to see more of the couple’s backstory that eventually leads to their climatic duet. “What I am doing this time around is creating material with the other Greek characters that give Echo and Narcissus their context. What you saw last season is a duet about a stunning individual who would eventually fall in love with his own reflection thanks to a curse put on him by one of the gods. And this particular person happens to be pined after by a person who doesn’t have the ability to make her own words. What I am trying to give you in this ballet is the back story to how Echo got into this position.” He continues, “And not just that story, but also the development of these other Greek myths including Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone.”
Dallas Black Dance Theatre will present Jamal Story’s aerial ballet, The Parts They Left Out, at this season’s Cultural Awareness Series, Feb. 19-21, at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Dee & Charles Wyly Theatre. The program also includes the world premiere of former Alvin Ailey dancer Kirven Douthit-Boyd’s Furtherance and Bridget L. Moore’s new work Unearthed.
The ladies of Dallas Black Dance Theatre strut their stuff in Margo Sappington’s Step Out of Love, part of the company’s Director’s Choice Series.
Dallas — Just when you think you have seen everything in Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s (DBDT) movement arsenal the company comes out with something bigger and bolder. Last season DBDT soared to new heights in Jamal Story’s aerial work What to Say? Sketches of Echo and Narcissus at its Spring Celebration Series. This year the ladies of DBDT are getting down and physical in Margo Sappington’s hard-hitting, jazz funk piece, Step Out of Love, part of the company’s annual Director’s Choice Series, Nov.6-8, at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in the Dallas Arts District.
A Texas native, Sappington began her professional dance career when she joined the Joffrey Ballet at the age of 17 and her choreographic career at the age of 21. In the U.S. her choeography has been used by companies such as Joffrey Ballet (New York/Chicago), Pennsylvania Ballet, Houston Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Milwaukee Ballet, Carolina Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Ballet Jazz de Montreal. In 1975 Sappington was nominated for a Tony Award for her work on the play Where’s Charley? and in 2005 received a Lifetime Achievement Award for choreography from the Joffrey.
Sappington is most well-known for using popular music on the concert stage, including songs by Prince, William Shatner, Indigo Girls and Carlos Santana. Her opera credits include Live from the San Francisco Opera,La Gioconda, Samson and Delilah and Aida. On Broadway, she was the dance captain in the original Promises, Promises and has choreographed revivals of Pal Joey, Oh! Calcutta!and Where’s Charley?
Originally set on Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 1987,Step Out of Love follows five women who don’t know each other, but are sharing the same story, which in this case is a bad break up. Each dancer’s story is told through various solos that then morph into duets and trios and eventually into a climactic group section. When asked about the structuring of the work Sappington explains, “The piece begins with each woman in her own thoughts, and as the piece progresses they realize that they are sharing an experience, each in her own way, at the same time. By the end of the piece they are all in the same place at the same time, all five of them in step with one another.”
Sappington’s use of classic jazz techniques in the work, including Fosse and Luigi are a welcome reprieve from the typical contemporary moves that are currently dominating the dance industry. Head whips and staccato hand gestures are paired with continuous leg lifts, hip swirls and foot flicks. Sappington repeats many of the same arm gestures, leg kicks and body poses throughout the piece, but she layers them with directional, level and speed changes to keep the movement from feeling redundant. The dancers’ varying emotional triggers also help keep the movement fresh and interesting. “It is important for each woman to internalize her thoughts and then show them through the movement. The movements are designed to help this process for each character.”
For example, Alyssa Harrington showcases her uncertainty about the break-up through a series of soft and hard body shapes and various controlled leg extensions. Michelle Herbert’s anger is palpable in her explosive barrel turns, sudden falls to the ground and aggressive hand gestures, including claps, flicks and jabs. Hana Delong and McKinley Willis (who was standing in for Jasmine White-Killins) let out their frustration with large traveling steps, frantic arms swings and sudden stop action moments. Unlike the others, Kayah Franklin appears to be the one initiating the break up as is evident through her dismissive body language and the sly smirk on her face.
Stephen Forsyth’s rock score by the same name adds more tension to the dance’s already heated tone and draws attention to the many gestural quirks in the choreography. When asked if this was intentional Sappington says, “The movement reflects not just the sentiment of the song, but also the abrasiveness of the music. Stephen used construction tools as part of his instrumentation such as drills and electric saws to give a dense and agitated quality to some of the instruments.”
Sappington says the complex movement sequences and the speed in which they are performed was a challenge for the dancers during the rehearsal process, but she is pleased with how quickly they embodied the movement and their characters. “We had a very short rehearsal period and the women were very focused and used every minute to absorb all the details.” Sappington adds, “Being a small group they know how to dance together and help and encourage each other, which creates a wonderful working atmosphere.”
Audiences can see Sappington’s Step Out of Love along with Alvin Ailey dancer Hope Boykin’s in·ter·pret, Christopher L. Huggins’ Night Run and Talley Beatty’s A Rag, A Bone, and A Hank of Hair at Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Director’s Choice Series, Nov. 6-8, at the Wyly Theatre.
Dallas Black Dance Theatre II pushes itself physically and emotionally in Artistic Director Nycole Ray’s Opaque, part of DanceFest 2015 this weekend.
Dallas — Starting out as a student-driven secondary company formed in 2000 by Dallas Black Dance Theatre Founder Ann Williams, Dallas Black Dance Theatre II (DBDT II) has flourished into a high caliber performance troupe made up of eight young and hungry semi-professionals from all over the place. This year’s troupe alone includes dancers from Washington, D.C., Chicago, Mexico and Jamaica. Every dancer has a unique story of how they became involved with DBDT II that they readily shared with me when I stopped by Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s (DBDT) main studio last Thursday to watch them prepare for the upcoming Dallas DanceFest.
Surprisingly only one company member comes from the Dallas Black Dance Academy while everyone else came in contact with DBDT through college workshops, summer intensives, tours in New York City and the International Association of Blacks in Dance conferences. Artistic Director Nycole Ray points out that these dancers are here voluntarily, working tirelessly toward the goal of one day moving up to the main company. “DBDT II is really the training company for DBDT,” Ray says. “Last year six out of the 12 main company members came from the second company.” Ray adds that this has always been Ms. Williams’ vision for DBDT II. “When I took over the second company six years ago Ms. Williams told me she wanted the group to have the same technical excellence and strength as the main company such that audiences wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two.”
With that goal in mind Ray is constantly challenging the dancers by introducing them to a variety of movement styles and choreographers, including Christopher L. Huggins, Bruce Wood, Ray Mercer, Dianne Grigsby, Cleo Parker Robinson and DBDT company member Richard A. Freeman, Jr. DBDT II’s touring schedule has included stops in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Virginia and Arkansas. Internationally the company has travelled to Ireland, South Africa, Austria and Peru, just to name a few. Ray says the company is very excited to add Mexico and Chile to their touring schedule this year.
When it comes to her own choreography Ray says she likes to challenge the dancers physically and emotionally, which comes across in abundance in her aptly titled work Opaque. “The piece is about things not always being transparent no matter how much you want them to be. The thought process stems from a person and not so happy feelings, which then evolved into something that made me feel good and positive.” You get a sense of this optimism through the dancers’ lifted upper bodies, unyielding trust in one another and purposeful use of each dancer’s (male and female) long, black skirts. “The skirts purposely cover the dancers’ feet to create this illusion that they are floating while also reflecting on the theme of transparency and what you can’t see.” The skirts are not just for ambiance. The dancers use them throughout the work as extensions of their bodies, links to one another in one section where they unravel across the stage and even for extra resistance in the partnering sequences. The effect is dramatic, yet not overdone.
» The second Dallas DanceFest is Sept. 4-6. Performances will take place on Friday and Saturday night at 8 p.m. with the 2015 Dance Council Honors awards ceremony and performance showcase occurring on Sunday afternoon.
Ann Williams reflects on her time as artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, the company’s impact on the Dallas community and her plans for the future.
Dallas — Teacher. Mentor. Dream maker. These are only a few of the titles Ann Williams has acquired over the past 37 years as founder/artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, the oldest, continuously operating professional dance company in Dallas. But after the company’s Spring Celebration Performance at the Winspear Opera House this weekend Williams will hand the reigns over and take on a new title: retiree.
“Next year I am looking forward to completely stepping back and enjoying DBDT from afar,” Williams says. “I will travel some, play bridge and enjoy the company of my friends and relatives.”
The two-evening Spring Celebration includes performances by Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, Bruce Wood Dance Project, Texas Ballet Theater and Kirven Douthit-Boyd (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater). Dancers from DBDT will also be performing in new works choreographed Lily Weiss (Booker T. Washington HSPVA) and Christopher Vo (dancer on Season 2 of the NBC show SMASH).
And while Williams will no longer be a part of the day-to-day activities of the organization once she retires, she will remain supportive and continue to seek out new funding opportunities. And the company can still expect to see her at rehearsals, programs, master classes and workshops. “But only on a limited basis and only as a guest/friend.”
As for the task of uncovering DBDT’s next artistic director Williams say the search has been going quite well. “We have 11 applicants from several different cities and states including New York. We have a dedicated committee not just from the Dallas community, but people who are interested in getting the best possible person for DBDT. The committee will choose a finalist very soon.”
The outpouring of love and support Williams has received since making her announcement last May proves DBDT is indeed a Dallas institution. “I do feel honored with all the love and attention that has happened this year from the local community, especially the dance community. It has made me feel special.”
Since starting the company in 1976, Williams has established five performing dance troupes and currently employs 12 administrative staff and 12 dancers on an 11-month contract. DBDT has performed in 14 countries with tours in Peru, South Africa, Uganda, Austria, Japan, Italy and many more. Most notable venues include Lincoln Center in New York City, The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the 2012 London Olympics. DBDT’s repertoire includes works by Alvin Ailey, Ulysses Dove, Talley Beatty, Christopher Huggins, David Parsons and Darryl B. Sneed, to name a few.
Like all dance companies, DBDT has experienced its highs and lows: economic declines, dancers leaving for other cities and housing complications (DBDT’s home is now 2700 Flora St.), but the company has managed to stay afloat thanks to careful planning and realistic goal setting. “DBDT also has a staff and board of directors that are dedicated to keeping the doors of the company open and support our mission of providing artistic excellence. We are supported by many individuals, corporations and foundations. Our audience and patrons have been with us during the highs and lows and we have rewarded them with great choreography and programs.”
When asked if she has any regrets Williams says, “I think I have accomplished the goals that were necessary and achievable. There can always be more, but I am grateful for our home in in the Arts District and the performance space we have with the Wyly Theatre. It would have been super to get that $1 million gift, but I believe that can happen with the next artistic director.”
As for her legacy, Williams would like to be remembered for the services she has provided to many dance students who would not have had the opportunity otherwise. “I believe I have opened doors of opportunity for many dancers, students, parents, organizations in the City of Dallas, the State of Texas and many parts of the nation and around the world. I have given from my heart and soul so that others can fulfill their dreams.”
Christopher Vo pushes Dallas Black Dance Theatre mentally in his new work touch (listen), part of the company’s Spring Celebration, honoring the legacy of Ann Williams.
Dallas – “Remember guys, calm, easy and mindful,” says choreographer Christopher Vo to the members of Dallas Black Dance Theatre as they prepare to run through his new work, touch (listen), last Friday afternoon. In this piece Vo challenges the dancers to be more impulsive and alert in their movement choices.
“I really wanted to create this sense of community,” Vo says. “The dancers are good at taking movement in and executing it, but they needed some help when it came to running and walking together. This was my gift to them.”
A Dallas native, Vo attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts before being accepted to the Juilliard School in New York. From 2008 to 2011 Vo toured and taught master classes across the country with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. He was also a principal dancer in Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Awaydance musical and was a featured dancer throughout Season 2 of the NBC show SMASH. In 2013 Vo performed in the world premiere of the Bruce Wood Dance Project’s My Brother’s Keeper and also headlined Dance Planet 17, a free dance event the Dance Council of North Texas puts on every year.
Before heading into rehearsals Vo sent an e-mail to the dancers asking them what kind of piece they were interested in doing. “Half of them wanted to dance to an Ella Fitzgerald or Stevie Wonder song while the other half wanted something more instrumental. I decided to challenge them with a more classical piece of music.”
touch (listen) begins with six couples lounging stoically on the ground. At the start of the music they slowly inch backwards across the floor. One by one the dancers stand and begin running. As the violin swells and descends the dancers spontaneously break into pairs, trios and quartets creating visually pleasing lines and rotating formations as they go.
Vo is an impulsive mover. He doesn’t create movement ahead of time. Instead he prefers the dancers to discover what works for them in that moment. “I don’t want the movement to feel forced. I like when it happens organically.”
Vo adds that the choreography for touch (listen) was really a collaborative effort between him and the dancers. “I see myself more as the architect and the dancers as the lumber and the screws of the dance.”
While finishing the dance Vo asked the dancers several times to just go with the flow rather than give them specific pathways. “In this section I want you to be less creative here (Vo points to his head) and just go with the momentum.” But he still expects the dancers to be mindful of where everyone is spatially. This is especially crucial when there are two groups on stage rotating clockwise with the purpose of joining together in one straight line at the end. Viewers will certainly notice if one group’s timing is off.
Vo’s teaching style is firm yet encouraging, a combination the dancers respond well to. “I don’t want to discourage them. I want to motivate them to keep pushing for their best each time.” Vo is also a strong believer in repetition. He will run the same few phrases of movement at least five times, tweaking something each time. “I like repetition because I like to exhaust all the options in order to find the correct movement.”
Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Spring Celebration Performance, which honors the legacy of founder Ann Williams, is May 16-17, 2014 at the Winspear Opera House. In addition to Vo, the program also includes DBDT performing works by Bruce Wood and Lily Weiss (Booker T. Washington HSPVA), and features guest performances by Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico, Bruce Wood Dance Project, Texas Ballet Theater and guest performer Kirven Douthit-Boyd of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.