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'Prelude/Frustration in a Martini' and 'Witness'

by Carmel Morgan

September 12, 2008 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Millennium Stage, Washington, DC

On September 12, 2008, VTDance, directed by Vincent E. Thomas, presented two thoughtful works, “Prelude/Frustration in a Martini” and “Witness,” as part of the Kennedy Center’s Local Dance Commissioning Project.  “Prelude” is a relatively short solo work in which Thomas, dressed in a suit, travels in long diagonals, connecting opposite corners of the stage, accompanied by live cello music (J.S. Bach performed by Cecylia Barczyk) and text from Martin Luther King, Jr.  Thomas’ arms flap and wrap around his body.  The piece is slow, focused, and rather repetitive.  One unique movement is a turn on one knee with the other leg extended.  Another movement that captures one’s attention is a simple pose in which Thomas follows with his eyes and head the upward reach of his hand.  Overall, however, the work is difficult to grasp, and Thomas comes across as constrained.

The second work, “Witness,” is a sweeping ensemble piece.  This work, too, includes text and live music, as well as video.  The stage is busy, with thirteen performers total.  “Witness” embraces a theme of humanity and social harmony.  Race, gender, and patriotism are among the issues that are explored.  “Witness” moves from sadness and seriousness to lightness and joy.   

The dancers who accompany Thomas in “Witness” are almost all graduates of Towson University, where Thomas is an assistant professor of dance.  In the beginning of the piece, they read newspapers.  The dancers are brilliantly costumed by Jodi Ozimek in navy blazers, brown leggings, white tops with ties, and ragged skirts in pastel shades of faded yellow and pink.  Thus  attired, the dancers are part everyman, part uniformed schoolgirl.  The dancers stop, gesture, wander, and maintain impressive group energy.  Text and video clips are shown on a screen at the back of the stage.  Phrases like “Is there only one eternity if destiny is a shared experience?” confound.   

At one point, the dancers spout sections of the Pledge of Allegiance, a pleasant mishmash of talk and song in a cacophonous canon.  Dancers also mock cheerleading and hip-hop steps, bringing an element of humor to the piece.  Later, Thomas, surrounded by the rest of the dancers, all females, tosses a barrage of newspaper.  The crumpled paper and cello together make gorgeous sounds.  Duets erupt in which the dancers cling to one another and perform odd but pretty lifts. 

“Witness” culminates in a drummer, Jason Armstrong Baker, and beat box artist, Shodekeh, joining the group.  A dancer holds a video camera and films the audience, then the performers pass the camera between themselves.  They look at us, we look at them, to great effect.  On the screen flash the various faces of the patrons, driving home the message, “Where is your humanity?”  Finally, the dancers break free and the lights brighten.  The audience claps to the rhythm.  In a wide circle the dancers do barrel turns, leaps, and kicks, taking turns performing short peppy solos as they separate from a line.  The musicians also dance at the end, imparting the warm and fuzzy feeling that we are all one. 

“Witness” gives the audience a lot to chew on, and the multiple layers are sometimes overpowering, but Thomas and his dancers execute it extremely well.

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