Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre

May 5, 2005

Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre
Karamu House, Cleveland, OH

May 5–22, 2005

Reviewed by Paloma McGregor


Dianne McIntyre and Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre’s artistic director, Michael Medcalf, offered up a Mother’s Day-weekend gift in their dance-theater work, Daughter of a Buffalo Soldier. The two-act world premiere, directed and choreographed by McIntyre, tells the story of Marjorie Witt Johnson, who in the early days of modern dance birthed a black dance company that stole the show at the 1940 World’s Fair in New York.

In translating a life into an evening-length theatrical work—an ambitious endeavor—McIntyre mostly succeeds, weaving together choreography, live monologues, and recorded voice. The dancers shift with ease from vigorous traditional African movement to lilting contemporary dance to spoken text.

The show’s first act masterfully transitions from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Cleveland, Ohio, where Witt Johnson created a dance program at a former settlement house, now Karamu House, the country’s oldest African American theater. Venetia Whatley played Witt Johnson as a child with buoyancy and impeccable comic sensibilities; Natasha Colon’s charm characterized the college girl with a strong, determined body; with grace and power, Kashanna Brown embodied the nurturing adult who won over generations of young students.

The men were led by Medcalf, whose strong, clean lines lent clarity to the part of Witt Johnson’s brave father, one of the black enlisted men whom Native Americans called Buffalo Soldiers. Desmond Davis, in the roles of soldier and student, commanded the stage with his small frame in everything from daredevil leaps to zippy turns.

Despite great dancing, the second half of the work needs editing. In its opening segment, dancers become moving tableaux to a recording of Witt Johnson recalling her later life and work. It’s effective, but too long. The show culminates with the 11 dances from the World’s Fair, which McIntyre restaged with the assistance of one of the original dancers, Roger Mae Johnson. The section shows Witt Johnson’s amazing range, but comes after the show’s narrative has shot beyond that period; it needs a clearer setup to transport the audience back.

Still, Buffalo Soldier rises above its structural issues. With it, McIntyre and Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre have contributed an important document to African American dance history.

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