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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

The Revolution Will Be Danced
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Blondell Cummings
Blondell Cummings.
Michael Peters, another Ailey prodigy, landed on Broadway working with Michael Bennett on "A Chorus Line" and segued into the music industry, choreographing Michael Jackson's groundbreaking THRILLER and other music videos.

Ulysses Dove, a gentle soul and a brilliant dancer who worked with Merce Cunningham before joining the Ailey Company, was offered an opportunity to create a work on the company. He choreographed "I see the Moon ... and the Moon Sees Me," a promising glimpse of the choreographic brilliance that would be sustained for 15 years, until his death from AIDS in 1996. Dove set works on Ballet France de Nancy, the London Festival Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Les Ballet Jazz de Montreal, the New York City Ballet, and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and worked on a range of projects, including the opera "Civil Wars" with Robert Wilson and Philip Glass.

The Grand Experiment

Almost simultaneously, a grand experiment that began with an unassuming workshop in Merce Cunningham's studio during the 1960s made a big noise and generated a number of new choreographers beginning in the 1970s. Among the African-American dancers who emerged as major choreographic voices were Blondell Cummings, Bebe Miller, Gus Solomons, jr., Ishmael Houston Jones, and Bill T. Jones.

While attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, majoring in architecture, and taking dance classes on the side, Gus Solomons, jr. met Merce Cunningham. Upon graduation, he traveled to New York and a world of dance that was doing something different, something its inhabitants called "postmodern" dance. "Now, of course, this had absolutely nothing to do with what black dancers were doing in New York at the time." Solomons immersed himself in this world and began to create critically acclaimed works light on narrative and heavy on process, but not preoccupied with social and political issues. He danced with the Merce Cunningham Company before branching off to start his own. According to Solomons, critics described his works as "always witty, always brainy, always well put together, but difficult to love." "We started with a seminar at Merce Cunningham's studio, just playing with ideas. The seminar moved into the Judson Church and became the Judson Group, which was a bunch of really profoundly experimental people, including Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Ruth Emerson ... that was just abandoning all the things that we knew and held sacred about modern dance, all the things that had been accrued after Isadora broke from corsets and ballet. It was time to refresh once again." Refresh they did.

While Solomons was less connected with what many African-American choreographers were doing, this was not the case for one of his company members -- Dianne McIntyre.

Kinetic, complex, and created with a blend of structure and improvisation, McIntyre's works sustained a company called Sounds in Motion. Because her choreography captured the abstract essence of dance's Africanisms, critics sometimes couldn't quite figure out which label to apply to her. McIntyre collaborated with jazz musicians Max Roach, Cecil Taylor, Abbey Lincoln, and Eubie Blake (one of the creators of the 1921 musical "Shuffle Along" and a famous pianist). Her ensemble of dancers were so in tune with each other's movement instincts that they managed not to collide while hurling themselves unpredictably through space in the improvisational sections threaded throughout her choreography. Her work blended process and narrative, and some verged on the masterful. "Take-Off from a Forced Landing" combined autobiography, biography, social comment, and dance innovation as it reflected the story of her own mother's efforts to pursue her passion -- flying -- and the choreographer's efforts to maintain creative flight.

Solomons and McIntyre seemed to signal the beginning of something new, and Blondell Cummings confirmed it. An original member of choreographer Meredith Monk's company, Cummings too moved in directions that seemed to straddle different choreographic approaches -- one anchored by the iconoclastic concerns of the avant garde and the other rooted in the more familiar landscape of human relationships. A major icon of her work was the 1981 piece "Chicken Soup." The housedress she wore, the skillet she brandished, the strobe-light quality to the rapid-fire movements that suggested a woman cooking, talking, eating, laughing, being human, all suggested something familiar and familial. Not an unusual concept in works that reflected the link between the personal and the universal and began to focus on cross-cultural connections, thereby gaining an international audience.

Soon another woman appeared on the landscape, thrusting her improvisational explorations center stage with a vengeance that recalled McIntyre's energy while adding new accents of her own. On her company called Urban Bushwomen, choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar created works with names like "Shelter," "I Don't Know, But I've Been Told if You Keep on Dancin' You'll Never Grow Old," and "Batty Moves." She took an unflinching look at such diverse issues as homelessness and a prominent part of the African-American female physique -- the butt.

According to Zollar, the ensemble theater process of the '60s and '70s was a major influence. Drawn by the ensembles' way of "coming together as a unit, really going through processes, developing theater games, talking about ideas, improvising out of those ideas," she used this as the model for her own company's method: "Something I call an actor's process with the dancer's physicality."

Garth Fagan and Ron K. Brown were two other African-American choreographers who swept onto the contemporary stage and took it by storm. Ron K. Brown emerged during the 1980s with a company called Evidence that reflected the influence of teachers rooted in the history of American modern dance -- Anna Sokolow, Mary Anthony, and Jennifer Muller. Telling stories through movement, Brown created propulsive dances that owed a debt, he says, to such diverse influences as Martha Graham, Jose Limon, Alvin Ailey, traditional West African dance, and popular club dances. In works like "Water," he addressed issues of violence and redemption, and in "High Life" he captured, through movement, the essence of the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to northern cities in the early 1900s. Brown declared his position on the family tree that included Katherine Dunham, Donald McKayle, and Alvin Ailey, saying he was motivated by "the responsibility to present myself, my story, my history and the history of (my) people."

Garth Fagan's Rochester-based company started in the early 1970s with the name Bottom of the Bucket, But ... Dance Theatre. They seemed to spring out of nowhere and land center stage with an appearance on the 1983 Dance Black America program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, winning critical and popular applause. Taking a route similar to Dunham's, Fagan created a technique to train his dancers to best perform his works, an exciting blend of movement that echoed a very strong African aesthetic. With dances called "Griot, New York," "From Before," and "Telling a Story," Fagan drew on his years with the Jamaican National Dance Theatre and seamlessly blended movement sensibilities, creating a dance fusion of his own. As historian Halifu Osumare wrote in the ADF booklet "African American Genius in Modern Dance," Fagan's fusion reflected "a distilling of emotion to its physical, muscular components, rather than the dramatic display of character or the overt display of emotion itself. This abstraction of emotion through the tool of juxtaposition of the cool and the hot is simultaneously an age-old use of an African aesthetic principle, Fagan followed in the footsteps of some of his predecessors, choreographing the Broadway show "The Lion King"; he became the second black choreographer, after George Faison, to win a Tony Award.

According to Halifu Osumare, "Beginning in the psychedelic '60s, when human consciousness 'expanded' and young people felt they could remake themselves, and extending through the political '70s in its fervent attempt at solutions to erupting social unrest and through the relative calm of the '80s 'me-first' generation, individualism took on 'new' meanings in America. At the same time the contradictory tendency of American conformity took a back seat. This is the social legacy of the last twenty years of current Black dance artists: individualism and the counter-culture movement paralleling integration and Black access to the mainstream. This is quite a different era than Katherine Dunham's of the '30s and '40s or Alvin Ailey's of the '50s and early '60s. Although our dance masters etched their very strong, individual personas in spite of the stifling social conditions, the Black choreographers of the late '70s and '80s have had the advantage of an era which supported their individual self-conceptions, their iconoclastic artistic explorations and their right to say they were human beings first."

In this climate, it has been possible for a myriad of choreographic styles to flourish. Today, as Bill T. Jones, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Blondell Cummings, Garth Fagan, Ron Brown, and others share the stage with a host of other African-American choreographers and dancers -- both their contemporaries and their predecessors -- it is clear that a revolution has already taken place. The African-American dancer has gained considerable ground and, more than ever before, a freedom to dance.

Copyright © 2001 by Zita Allen

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