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Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group, Noble Douglas Dance Company, Black Umfolosi

‘Black Burlesque (revisited)’

By Holly Messitt

October 24, 2003, Dance Theater Workshop, New York

The first thing you noticed upon walking into Dance Theater Workshop's theater during the run of “Black Burlesque (revisited)” was the large piece of hanging cloth that composed the backdrop for the stage. Through inspired lighting by Tyler Micoleau the piece would soon become a metaphor for the entire production. At times appearing like a soft, brown suede and at other times like sharp burlap, the cloth reflected the range of dance we witnessed that evening.

The event has brought together three different dance companies: Reggie Wilson and his company are New York-based. Noble Douglas Dance hails from Trinidad, and Black Umfolosi is a Zimbabwe-based cappella company. Together, with a total of thirteen dancers, five men and six women, these companies created a production layered with traditional dance, spirituals, pop, and hip-hop. In the process they create a community not only among the dancers themselves, but also between the dancers and the audience. The night I saw the performance, the audience began to clap impromptu along with the music. The dancers also created a sort of theater community by singing the audience back into the theater after intermission. Sitting in a circle on the floor, they sang and chanted – no impersonal light flashing here.

In fact, this image of community begins the entire evening. In three rounds, each of the dancers moves around the circle shaking hands with all the other dancers. They must first create their own community. After that, they play, jumping over each other in a game of leap-frog. Finally, the dancers become more serious and begin with blues-style singing and gospel music. Before the intermission, there is also a call and response section, and one section in which four of the men appear on stage in yellow rain boots, which they use for a foot-stomping, shin-slapping celebration of percussion sound.

Together with the sound, the dancers use movement that combines traditional bent backs and angled elbows with high leg extension and plies. Some of the dance is fast, especially after the intermission when most of the pop and hip-hop movement happens. Some of the movement is more pedestrian at the same time that it feels ritualistic, as when four of the women walk slowly over a circling path of three wedding dresses lined up one after the other. Three of the men look on, and as the last woman moves off the last dress, one of the men lifts it up and walks it to the front so that the first woman will take her next step onto the newly laid dress. In this way, the women walk precariously over the wedding dresses, waivering just slightly as they move forward.

Even the dancers’ clothing ranges in style, as Adrienne McDonald’s costumes have the men dressed in harlequin garb and the women in form fitting tops and various styles of modern skirts and pants. The overall effect is a total range of African and African American experience, squeezed together, sometimes uncomfortably, but mostly in celebration.

Edited by Jeff.

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