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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

A Patchwork Burlesque

Black Burlesque (revisited)
Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Davis, California
November 25, 2003

by Rita Felciano
Copyright ©2003 by Rita Felciano

Fortunately its decidedly odd name didn’t deter a sizable audience from coming two days before Thanksgiving for a show of loosely strung together and joyously performed glimpses at dance and music in Africa and the Diaspora. Still “Black Burlesque (revisited)”, Reggie Wilson’s exuberant entertainment, on a one-night stop in the elegant new Mondavi Center for the Arts on the UC Davis campus, deserved a larger audience. The originality of its concept, the loving attention to detail and the radiance of its twelve performers were something to be thankful for.

For “Burlesque” Wilson brought together the dancers of his own post-modern Fist and Heel Performance Group with the Noble Douglas Dance Company from Trinidad and Zimbabwe’s Black Umfolosi ensemble. (The “revisited” stems from a similar 1995 project, “Black Burlesque,” in which Wilson honored sacred and secular traditions in Africa and the Diaspora.) The odd title references the variety of live performances that made up cabaret-style shows popular until the advent of television. Traditional burlesque was but one of these acts, and a relative late ingredient to these early twentieth century popular entertainments. The closest Wilson’s production came to actual burlesque was in an early parade in which the performers strode across the apron. Dressed in casual, sometimes colorful outfits, they looked straight at the audience, daring us to evaluate them, one by one, like merchandise on display.

“Burlesque” was performed against a backdrop (by Thabiso Phokompe) of sewn together leather-like pieces of fabric in various shades of brown. Depending on Tyler Micoleau’s ingenious lighting, it became a façade with open windows, a translucent veil, a map of the world, the trunk of a huge tree. The two glitter balls, suggesting a relaxed club atmosphere, however, were a mistake. They are such a cliché. Besides these artists didn’t need that kind of show enhancement.

Traditional and contemporary popular music from the Caribbean, Africa and the U.S. —on tape—set up the aural environment. None of it could hold a candle to the glorious harmonies by Umfolosi’s quintet of a cappella singers, sometimes supplemented by the dancers’ voices.

Instead of featuring the three ensembles individually, Wilson melded them into a unit to highlight their common ancestry. Very rarely could you tell which dancers came from which ensemble. The fact that many of Wilson’s own New York-based dancers are Caribbean-trained probably helped the look of uniformity within diversity.

Though Wilson is credited with the project’s direction, he shared artistic responsibilities with Thomeki Dube of Black Umfolosi and Noble Douglas. In their hands “Burlesque” became a stitched together picture of contemporary and traditional Afro-centric dance in which each act added its shot of color to the patchwork. Much time was also spent—and not always as cogently as it could have been—in transitions and a general celebration of togetherness, sometimes creating a sense that these dancers performed more for and with each other than for the audience.

Lack of information on the material that went into weaving this fabric prevented fuller enjoyment, though you never doubted that its individual strands were spun from the same yarn. None of the dances, nor its performers, were identified.

The second half, for instance, started with what looked like a ring shout (one of the oldest surviving slave dances). Was it? A curious circle dance engaged couples alternating between a free form style and unison moves emanating from a bent posture. Were we to see this as contemporary choreography which yanked together two seemingly opposite performing traditions? Or was it based on some kind of vernacular dance form? An elaborate greeting dance of hand shakes and place changes in a rotating circle went on until its pattern had played itself out. Invented for or translated to the stage? And what about that that oddly fascinating engagement by three men and their white party dresses? Laying them neck to hem on the floor, they became a precarious road over which women dancers carefully pranced as if balancing on a tight rope.

Having the dance and the dancers speak for themselves may be enough. Ultimately that’s what counts in a live performance. And for the most part one can’t fault “Burlesque” in that regard.

Still being able to get at least some sense of the specifics of individual dances would have been much welcome. Knowing whether a dance is traditional or newly choreographed, based on existing material, melding traditions or recently inspired, doesn’t automatically obliterate the commonality and interconnectedness for which “Burlesque” makes such a convincing argument. It deepens the experience by amplifying context and perspective. While the Davis performance was well received, I suspect that too much of it communicated on the surface entertainment level only. This seems particularly unfortunate because so little of this rich material makes its way onto theater stages.

Despite frustration at an opportunity missed—could better program notes have helped?—“Burlesque” created intriguing juxtapositions as well as continuities. What an excellent idea, for instance, to set the South African Gumboot dance, the best known of so called contemporary African dances, against a background of self-absorbed women individually placed around the stage. Their gestural vocabulary of angled arms and outlined faces spoke of a common but private language. Dumisani Ndlovu, Brian Sibanda and Clemence Nkululeko Sibanda’s version of the boot dance became a joyously raucous competition between three buddies, who probably had had a few beers and who delighted in upstaging each other. They even managed to surprise themselves as an exuberantly shouted “mamma mia” let us know. The contrast between these lusty males and the women’s ever so cool demeanor was striking.

In the very next number, however, the women did their own competing. To the lilting strains of a Caribbean beat, a quartet of females, in a mixture of bitching and teasing, repeatedly bumped each other out of the limelight. Each dancer tried to raise the ante by outdoing her predecessor in terms of showy physical expressiveness. All the while a couple of males walked/slid across the stage, apparently oblivious to the women’s turf war.

Percussive footwork ruled the day. In one example a heavy-set woman’s flat-footed beats accompanied her chanting about Adam’s “hiding from the Lord.” That dance segued into a lively ensemble number of kicking feet and stomping steps as the dancers called out to each other something along the lines of “cookoola.” It would really have been good to learn where this dance’s origin. Later on, egged on by singers from the wings, the mesmerizing female singer/dancer returned, scooting rhythmically on her bottom, while rowing with her arms. She still was wondering with “Adam where art thou?”

Humor, companionship, reverence and an ability to engagingly present a plethora of points of view infused this evening of celebrating a common past. And presumably a common future. Now, may we please find out a little bit more about this past. The future can take care of itself.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 10
December 1, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Rita Felciano




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