Tag Archives: Jamal Story

Higher Ground

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.

JamalStoryduet
Alyssa Harrington and Claude Alexander III in the Jamal Story dance The Parts They Left Out. Photo: Amitava Sarkar

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.”

Photo: Courtesy of Jamal Story

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.

This preview was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.

 

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New Heights, Dallas Black Dance Theatre

Jamal Story, left, with Cher in the middle. Photo: JamalStory.com.
Jamal Story, left, with Cher in the middle. Photo: JamalStory.com.

Dallas Black Dance Theatre takes to the sky with its first ever aerial work, What to Say? Sketches of Echo and Narcissus, at this year’s Spring Celebration Series, part of the Soluna Festival.

Dallas — Once in a while you see a dance that leaves you so raw and vulnerable you’re still feeling the effects days later. Jamal Story’s aerial work What to Say? Sketches on Echo and Narcissus is one of those pieces. Unlike other aerial and silks works that just go for the WOW factor, Story uses the fabric to accentuate the dancers body lines and enhance the plot which is based off the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Echo has her voice taken away for a crime she didn’t commit by Zeus’ wife Hera. One day she spots Narcissus in the woods and falls madly in love with him, but when she tries to talk to him she can only repeat what he says. Narcissus rebuffs Echo and winds up falling in love with his own reflection and basically starves himself to death. “It’s really tragic and wrong, but then I thought you know, nobody ever deals with the Echo part of the story,” Story says. “Then I thought wouldn’t be interesting if we told the story from Echo’s perspective. How would that work and what kind of nuances would come out of her trying to manipulate his language to say what she wants to say.”

Story started his dance training with Lula Washington and the Lula Washington Dance Theatre before earning degrees in dance performance and TV/radio communications at Southern Methodist University. During his time at SMU he would also guest perform with Dallas Black Dance Theatre (DBDT) before continuing on to perform with Donald Byrd/theGroup, Madonna’s 2001 Drowned World Tour, Complexions Contemporary Dance and with Cher as an aerialist and dancer on Cher’s Living Proof: The Farewell Tour. Most recently Story was a dancer on Cher’s Dressed to Kill Tour and has also performed on Broadway in the original casts ofThe Color Purple and Motown: the Musical. He has also written two novels, 12:34 A Slice Novel and Toss In The Ether, a fictitious work for which he used DBDT as a template.

When it came to the music Story says he has been waiting for the right time to use Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” ever since he heard it while watching the movie Shutter Island. “What was amazing and heartbreaking for me was when you get to the end the movie and you understand what is going on that’s when this track gets played. And it was this kind of cathartic and real experience that made me think there had to be a way to set this up in choreography to have the same kind of impact. It was important to me that this piece of music be used in that way

I had the opportunity to see DBDT company members Claude Alexander III and Alyssa Harrington rehearseWhat to Say? late Monday afternoon at the company’s studio in downtown Dallas. (Alexander and Harrington will be performing on Friday and Saturday with a different cast on Sunday.) Watching the piece I definitely felt that emotional release Story described earlier. It was similar to how a person might feel after a good crying jag. The music and movement come at you in waves so one minute it’s building and the next it’s climaxing. The cycle keeps repeating, but each time it grows in intensity, which is demonstrated through the violins. In terms of the movement, once Harrington makes eye contact with Alexander (who is cocooned in the fabric) her body language becomes more agitated as she transitions from forward motion reaches and leg extensions into fragmented gestures and inverted leg positions. Using the fabric for support, Alexander rotates himself upside down just in time to catch Harrington’s upper body in an aerial spin as the music peaks. Harrington then climbs up Alexander’s body so that their positions are reversed as the fabric continues to rotate. Watching this exchange you would have no idea that this was the couple’s first time working with a piece of fabric in this fashion

Story says the most challenging part of the process was helping the dancers find their balance in the air. “It required a lot of focus from them and a lot openness from myself and my partner in terms of how to impart the information. And because the dancers didn’t have any aerial training they weren’t aware of what their bodies felt like in the air.” He adds, “Dancers are used to having the ground as their frame of reference so, in this cases they were trying to find lines that they had mastered over the years in a context where there was no physical grounding reference point.” Even though Story had spent three to four months working on the concept for the piece the actual material was hastily put together for an upcoming gala performance, so this time with DBDT really helped Story to rediscover the work and understand it better.

Photo: JamalStory.com
Photo: JamalStory.com

Alexander adds that while his strength is still the same when he is suspended upside down his focus has to remain on Harrington’s core to prevent himself from getting dizzy. Audiences will also see a different side to these dancers as they reach for new emotional depths. Harrington explains, “For me, these feelings come out of nowhere. Whenever I look at him it’s with these feelings of lust and obsession. The dance has a real push and pull quality to it. “

Dallas Black Dance Theatre will present What to Say? Sketches of Echo and Narcissus at its Annual Spring Celebration Series, May 15-17, at the Wyly Theatre in conjunction with the inaugural Soluna: International Music & Arts Festival. The program also includes the world premiere of Daniel Catanach’s Surface, a return of Bridget L. Moore’s Southern Recollections: For Romare Bearden, a duet to the music of Duke Ellington by two principal dancers from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a solo performance from Jamal Story.

This feature was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.