Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bliss. . .what is it? Freedom Part 1, hum never thought of freedom as a mini series before.

I arrived late to Dance Mission Theatre and the venue was sold out, but at least the weather was cool, not unbearably freezing or snowing--yes in California, as predicted by local weather personnel. Not only that, I drove to San Francisco,instead of taking BART and just crossing the street--Dance Mission is on 24th Street, across from the 24th Street Station. Nonetheless, I found a parking spot just three long blocks away--it was the walk that made me late by five minutes, five minutes that cost me a seat. I found a comfortable place to stand and then at intermission I actually found a seat which got better when half my row asked me to move to the center, so when they left before the end, I wouldn’t be disturbed.

If I’d had my camera, I’d say, the evening was perfect, but I forgot it at home and so without visual props, my descriptions of the lovely evening, the second of three, will have to do—well not really if you are reading this tonight or tomorrow before 7:00 PM. You could go to the theatre and see many of these performances yourself—all but the Artist Mentoring Program artists: Denice C. Simpson and Byb Chanel Bibene.

So let’s start with what you missed (smile), I mean really missed as in you can catch Byb in the Pilot Project at ODC March 26-27, but it is a work previously performed at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco last year, “Nzoto Installation,” not “Tombola Makolo” (Lift your feet) –a premiere, at BCFH&N which he says is a “sample painting that portrays a certain lifestyle in his home country, Congo, which he visited last summer.” He was joined in Congo by another Bay Area artist, Amara Tabor Smith who is performing "Our Daily Bread" at CounterPulse April 14-24, so stay tuned.

Even before I read the description, I was captivated by the playful childhood games dancers as children reenacted: duck-duck-goose, hopscotch, and various hand clapping rhymes. This scene faded into the children's mothers and sisters also laughing and singing. Work and fun are synonymous and Byb illustrates this with his colorful and captivating characters and movement. From sun up to sun down--what a different picture of Africa Byb paints. I love the slumber, peaceful except for nocturnal sounds and the music--both ancient or traditional and modern. Byb performed last year at BCFH&N I believe, yet the first time I saw him perform was with Compangie Li-Sangha at the San Francisco Arts Festival in 2007. I can hardly believe it has been four years--wow!

Each year I am just amazed at the level of artistry each choreographer brings to the stage. Week 2, Kendra Kimbrough, co-founder of the Black Choreographer Festival, said was visually lovely—each piece like a painting, whereas week 3 is certainly varied stylistically taking audiences to Central Africa and to South America—happy stories. It was great seeing Pan African stories that had characters smiling and laughing and playing, flirting and celebrating.

“My Peace—Bliss, Dis, Just Be,” another premiere, choreographed by Denice C. Simpson, who was so excited when I cornered her before she left the theatre to have a celebratory meal with friends, and rightly so, her big night as a choreographer mounting her first piece.

"Bliss" is a long choral piece that uses words not music as a back drop for performance. It gives audiences the back story for the narrative on stage—the solo character split, three characters portraying different aspects of her story—the Holy Ghost and Spirit Daughter danced by Latanya D. Tigner and Lavinia Mitchell.

“When we first started rehearsing, we danced in silence, and then I added the words.” Simpson said. She didn’t want the dancers to hang a phrase on a line. “Dancers usually perform with music—I wanted the poetry to be an additional layer, not a prop.

Simpson is on stage first –her movements large, she fills the stage. Positive affirmations cover her steps as she speaks aloud about “bliss”—bliss like one hears others talk about heaven. Simpson’s character is joined by another Tigner on stage who repeats phrases and then dance alone—the second dancer is joined by a third (Mitchell) who also repeats familiar phrases and then the scene shifts back to Mother Goddess (Simpson) and one hears doubts creeping into the monologue. “Bliss” seems to have shifted into something entirely different. Where is the happy young woman we met earlier? Where is her optimism? What Simpson says in "My Peace" is that sometimes one has to let go of the bliss, especially if the joy is outside of oneself. Sometimes the greater good only comes when one lets go.

"Bliss" came out of a bad relationship—Simpson says. For her, the end was potential for a new beginning. “My Peace” shows how the protagonist had to get to a place where she realizes that she is enough--complete, that she is sufficient for her needs.

"My Peace--Bliss, Dis, Just Be” is a journey of growth and transformation—none of it easy. Simpson’s character pulls on her inner strength shown in the concluding solo—the dancer’s lithe figure swiveling her hips once again as she claims her divinity and power. Simpson has been invited to perform the work again at Laney College’s Spring Showcase 2011 and perhaps at Dance Mission during their Frost Project later this year. Check the local calendars for the details.

The program closed with choreographer’s Jamar “Jammer” Welch and Korry “Kato” Watkins, "Homeage (bridging the gap)" with Imajik Dance Theater, a new company under the Housin Authoity Productions umbrella.

I remember seeing Housin Authority at a Black History event at Contra Costa College –my first teaching gig in higher education. Kamau Seitu told me his friend, Terence Elliot passed on the word that CCC was looking to hire English teachers and if he knew anyone, he should encourage him or her to apply. I did and Fritz Pointer hired me.

Just like Midnight Voices, with Muhammad Bilal and Will Power was my introduction to hip hop music or rap, Housin Authority was my introduction to b-boying West Coast style. In an interview Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, Jamar Welch, one of the founding members, said the ensemble is approaching its twentieth anniversary—wow time certainly moves when one isn’t keeping track. “Homeage” (bridging the gap), a work in progress, celebrates Michael Jackson and the musical era he was a part of either by participation or influence.

Jammer and Kato kept the party going with company members: Nigel Bolton aka Liquid, Anthony Gooch aka The Gooch, Jeriel Bey aka Sparks and Alvedo. Lip-syncing popular songs in the style of male groups like The Temptations and of course The Jackson Five, the men then brought it home to the Richmond projects with sharp freestyle moves that had the audience on the edges of its seats as each dancer soloed, the moves complex yet executed with such skill and ease— Imajik members masters of their craft. At one point a dancer did a complete body flip and was flat on the floor --it was astounding! I could hear the oohs and ahs from the audience pausing mid-clap. We were like, oh my goodness! How did he get up so gracefully without missing a beat?!

I loved “Freedom Study 1” with choreographer Sheena Johnson, who was surrounded by so many fans after the show I couldn’t get close enough to say congratulations. She was on my radio show as well that fateful Friday morning before opening night. I wasn’t certain which of the two dancers she was. I think she was the one in the film, but I won’t know for sure until Sunday evening and ask (smile). See

Once again I wish I’d remembered my camera—the two women, Sheena and Chris who also provided the original score, were pretty awesome. The video installation which was as much a part of the live performance, combined with the dance and music, made the work multiple layered and intriguing. The dancers were literally on the screen and on the stage, in the film or video and then projected onto the screen in a live filming of the process—use your imagination here—the one melting into the other and then when projections made a character larger than life, face contorted—the two dancers partnering and juxtaposed to one another—it was hum, what does it mean and what does freedom have to do with any of this, which is lovely but I don’t get it? What is the room? Is she trapped? What is freedom and where is the next phrase of the study taking us?

"Movendo con Capoeira," a work in progress by choreographer Tania Santiago, was a celebration of Capoeira and the berimbao—the instrument, its legacy, the dance—its sensuality and deadliness, the sacred and the secular dimensions of a complex system: Angola meets Brazil –one African and the other African Diaspora—capoeira a coded system linked to ancient times before capture, before slavery.

The percussionist/drummers and dancer, Mestre Cafu, danced as he played the berimbao, his torso adorned with a multiplicity of tattoos some I recognized. In the center of a circle, the surrounding dancers sang, clapped and then paired off for sparing. Stephanie Bastos and Ricardo Acosta in a duet flirted with the idea of love—Bastos of the lovely voice (smile). The choreographer off stage sang at the beginning in a call and response, a style repeated several times during the performance. Who knows, we might see the work later this year as a part of Cuba Caribe, May 2011, also at Dance Mission. Visit

One of my favorite pieces was choreographer Michael Velez’s untitled piece, danced by Erik Lee. A solo powerfully executed by Lee whose demons were all the typical stereotypes or demons black men fight just as hard as society fights them. Danced to Jay-Z’s Lucifer, I wondered as the character considered what he was up against and whether or not he chose to succumb to the destiny assigned him, not necessarily the one he deserves if given half a chance?

I was reminded of artist Nancy Cato’s angel series, inspired by the murders with handguns taking out so many young black men— In one of her pieces, there are two young men with guns pointed at the other’s head. Angels are tugging at their hands barely keeping the barrels from making contact, while other angels pull on the men's arms, one angel positioned between the two men’s knees. It isn’t clear at the end of the short, yet powerful dance which ends with the young man disappearing into darkness, what his choice is. Just as with Cato's piece, one doesn't know if the angels will win. Visit

We can only hope for the best.



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