At the opening of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Spring Celebration, held in the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre over the weekend, long-time director Ann Williams began the evening by ushering onto the stage the new directing cadre. A 40th season finale, it was the first with new artistic director Bridget L. Moore.
It was a spring celebration, and fitting for spring celebration, it featured a bouquet of pieces, including two choreographed by Austin Ballet director Stephen Mills, a long-awaited Twyla Tharp, and two by Moore herself.
The opening ensemble number by Mills was dense with textures, a stylistic romp through various dance styles. Titled, appropriately, Bounce, it gathered rhythm and syncopation. Alyssa Harrington traced sinuous tango lines in the first pas de deux; vigorous ensemble dancing segued into a quieter pas de deux of particular tenderness and technical mastery.
Next came an earlier work, a strongly grounded modern ballet piece also by Mills, this time featuring a duo of Austin Ballet dancers. Lighting and costuming were exquisite, the pair appearing as golden children, sharing almost a kind of androgyny and moving symmetry, while the lighting creating leaf-light patterns on the stage, like a golden forest through which they moved. Quite balletic, the choreography included modern moves organically linked via strength and grace, the effect at once sensitive and beautiful, full of athleticism for a fluid pas de deux. Set to a Handel aria, I found it to be a breathtaking modern ballet, and so exquisitely sequenced to the music it almost hurt.
Williams announced that she has waited 20 years to bring a Twyla Tharp piece to the DBDT repertoire. Anyone who has seen Sinatra Suite, Tharp’s ballroom duet set to Frank Sinatra songs, which premiered at the American Ballet Theater in 1983 with Oscar de la Renta costumes and Mikhail Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo dancing under a starry sky, will remember the breathtaking, precise, feather-light footwork that managed to make the steps so light that Kudo’s striking black high heels seemed to evanesce. It’s a hard act to follow. Here, DBDT dancers Kayah Franklin and Kimara Wood had none of the extra, effortless lift, the grace extending beyond the end of the movement’s arc, though the DBDT duo nailed the feisty “That’s Life” movement, a stylized tousle of classic man-woman struggle. The movement, set against a red background, Tharp at her fieriest, was also their forte. But without the crispness, the more languorous ballroom interludes were bland, Franklin seeming ever to fight the weight of her heels.
Two pieces by Moore ushered her in in her new role. Uncharted Territory, which premiered as part of the TITAS Command Performance earlier this month, proves Moore’s appreciation for vigorous physicality, incorporating martial arts, the thrust and parry of fencing, and Afro-Caribbean dance influences. Executed with control and conviction by Claude Alexander III and Kimara Wood, the piece is bold and martial, at its best when the dancers move singly or in almost defiant unison, rather than when they circled each other, in what felt like a warrior-stance cliché. The costumes, Jean-Paul Gaulthier-like modernist deconstructed cages, were outrageous and part of the visual drama, though in no way distracting. They played with boundaries and edges.
The final number was Moore’s 2013 Southern Recollections: For Romare Bearden, a sensitive and sensuous homage to the 20th century artist via a series of vignettes, three of which used his paintings as background. Loosely tracing the African American story, and full of mood and energy, the piece began with the verisimilitude of belted trench coats and cumbersome hats (in a number titled “Hold That Train”), but once freed from the bulk, stripped to vests and cleaner lines, the dancers’ bodies and movements were far more compelling. And then, the dancing was electric. Keon K. Nickie took the stage as “Conjur Man,” his sinuous torso undulating snake-like against a Bearden background of collage, while female dancers from the company strutted by like exquisitely colorful jazz birds. I would have liked a little less emphasis on clothing. Aside a dressing and undressing sequence that seemed a way of biding time or finding a hiatus between movements, it was an ambitious five-part piece that was broad in its scope but well paced and sequenced, with bursts of fabulously sustained dancing from company members Alyssa Harrington and Hana Delong. The piece, in its energy and ethos, was beautifully suited to the company and played to its strengths. It seemed set and rehearsed by someone who knows her dancers. In that sense—and in many ways—one could not ask for a better showcase to crown both a 40th and a 1st.