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FLY: Five First Ladies of Dance

By Eva Yaa Asantewaa

FLY: Five First Ladies

of Dance
Kumble Theater for the Performing Arts, NYC
May 30–31, 2009
Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa


Dianne McIntyre in If You Don't Know Me. Photo by Victor Jouvert, courtesy 651 ARTS.

 

“FLY: Five First Ladies of Dance” featured short solos performed by daughters of Africa and her diaspora—Bebe Miller,  Dianne McIntyre, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Carmen de Lavallade, and Senegal’s Germaine Acogny—taking to the stage long past what mainstream American society considers to be the optimum age for a dancer and, to be frank, the optimum age for any woman. In celebrating its 20th anniversary, 651 ARTS chose to honor the tenacity and continuing achievements of these artists.


They hail from different aesthetic milieus. Miller’s career, for instance, burgeoned amid New York’s “downtown” avant garde, while de Lavallade trained with Lester Horton and has graced Broadway, opera, and film. Yet each has questioned the status quo of her art and her time, forging a legacy of creative engagement to inspire generations to come.


In Rain (1989), a modest rectangle of lawn grass becomes Miller’s set and silent partner. Dressed in red velvet, the dancer stretches her arms out wide, as if enjoying their reach. Backpedaling towards this plot of land, she contemplates it, tenderly runs her hand over it, sprawls before it in a tomboyish way, and dances an enigmatic pattern that nevertheless seems to radiate the pride of new ownership. Her solo made me think of wildly overlapping ideas such as the cultural and historical relationship of African and African American people to land; the relationship of dancers to space; and the manicured, altered nature of being roughly cut from one’s native context and planted in an unfamiliar place.


Acogny’s untitled work-in-progress, choreographed with Pierre Doussaint, appears to meditate on journeying. It opens with promise: a declaration that “We need women presidents de la Republique in Africa!” But Acogny’s meanderings are upstaged by Fred Koenig’s surreal and lovely video, and the piece will benefit from compression and focus.


McIyntre (premiering If You Don’t Know Me) and de Lavallade (in Geoffrey Holder’s The Creation from 1972) both served up lessons in elegant, authoritative comportment and command of space, all with minimal fuss. The McIntyre piece is an homage to artists she respects and wishes we knew better. De Lavallade’s storytelling in words and motions offers a saucy illustration of the Biblical take on how our world came to be and could make a believer out of Darwin.


By comparison, Zollar’s Bring ‘Em Home, inspired by the displaced citizens of New Orleans, felt humble. Zollar, lying on the floor, seems able to do little more than wave the white handkerchief clutched in her fingertips. It evokes, at first, surrender, then memories of people signaling for help from the roofs of their flooded homes. But the piece moves towards exuberant celebration and, returning for her bow, Zollar gave us a firm assignment: Go online, sign the petition, bring New Orleans’s diaspora home.