2005 Black Choreographers Festival: Here and Now

February 12, 2005

Robert Henry Johnson,
Othello Papers Photo: Kimara Dixon.


2005 Black Choreographers Festival: Here and Now
Project Artaud Theater, San Francisco, CA

February 12, 2005

Reviewed by Valerie Gladstone


Walking into the crowded theater lobby for the Black Choreographers Festival felt like joining a friendly house party. The fragrant smell of barbecued chicken and collard greens wafted from large steel cooking pots, and Destiny, the Harpist from the Hood, played silvery chords. The festival, which was founded in 1996 by an artists’ collective, provides performance opportunities for African and African American artists in the Bay area.

National Poetry Slam champion Marc Bamuthi Joseph started off the proceedings by instructing the audience on how to behave. “I want you shouting and stamping and cheering,” he said. “I want you to give the dancers and choreographers some appreciation because they have worked very hard to be here tonight.”

Everyone burst into applause and the lights dimmed, leaving only one spotlight on Joanna Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theater, hanging from what appeared to be a steel window frame in her work Hey. Interested in relating dance to natural, architectural, and cultural sites, she often incorporates suspension and aerial flight into her works. She walked around the frame, peered through it, and then leapt onto a rung, swinging gracefully from side to side to the otherworldly sounds of a lute-like instrument. In her relaxed poses, she seemed to be coolly observing the world from her perch, finding new ways of seeing each time the frame swung in a different direction. It was exquisitely beautiful.

The other standout on the excellent program was the premiere of choreographer/playwright Robert Henry Johnson’s Othello Papers, a two-part work in progress. In the first section to music by Steve Reich, seven dancers from Ballet Santa Cruz performed the formal choreography with a quirky zest that gave it an extra punch, nicely juxtaposing lush port de bras with vigorous jetés. Johnson came out afterward alone, script in hand, and delivered a brilliant monologue about race, race theory and the polarization of blacks in European literature, and the so-called “house nigger.”

Never ponderous, always witty, Johnson portrayed in quick succession Othello, Caliban, Cleopatra, Aaron, and the Prince of Morocco, as they gathered for an evening together in Venice. Othello complains that he is the only black person in the play. Cleopatra suggests he needs some anger management, and so it goes as they wrestle with their positions in the white world. In the final sequence, he dances wildly and freely to Stravinsky’s Firebird, emerging from the ordeal of history as a valiant warrior, loving husband, and hero, no longer burdened by stereotypes and racism.

New Style Motherlode performed a raucous piece, Juke Joint, choreographed by popular San Francisco teacher, producer, and costume designer Corey Action with Teela Shine, Neapolitan Robert D. Lupo, and Dahrio “Wonder” Hutton, with lots of hip hop moves, high kicks, and sexy overtones. La Chandra Davis and Shine’s high spirits overflowed the stage and had audience members stomping in appreciation.

The 40-year-old Diamano Coura West African Dance Company inspired the same enthusiastic response with the premiere of Bodeor, choreographed by Naomi and Esailama Diouf and incorporating sudden jumps, spinning arms and fierce, powerful ensemble work.

The only disappointment was The Flowing Stream, choreographed by Reginald Ray-Savage for Savage Jazz. A grab bag of movements and poses with no relationship to one another, it lacked structure and coherence.

Finally, the charismatic Joseph returned and held the audience rapt with a wrenching tribute to his grandfather and a plea for help for Haiti, his sinuous body even more eloquent than his words.