A moment from choreographer Matthew Rushing's 'Tribute,' a homage to "dancestors" through spoken word, song, and tap. The movement in the piece evokes tree roots as they grow and reach. Sharen Bradford / The Dancing Image

Theater & Dance

Dallas Black Dance Theatre Turns to the Past in Cultural Awareness Works

Stories fit together to create a masterpiece of recognition, remembrance, and love at the Wyly this weekend.

Find tickets for Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Cultural Awareness program here

Each move is powerful—and every detail purposeful—in each of the four works of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre’s Cultural Awareness series. The dancers honor the legacy of those who have gone before them in celebration of the rich cultures they cultivated. Friday through Sunday, these pieces come to life on the Wyly’s stage: His Grace; Essence; Displaced, Yet Rebirthed; and Tribute.

All four tell stories from different times and places, but they fit together to create a masterpiece of recognition, remembrance, and love. The dancers’ evident talent captures your attention first, but the storytelling is what keeps it there. “We wanted to present a program that would showcase Dallas Black Dance Theatre in terms of how it’s well-rooted in African American history,” DBDT Interim Artistic Director Melissa M. Young says.

One of the most important figures in that history is the late South African leader Nelson Mandela, whose centennial is this year. His Grace, which made its Dallas debut in 2014 and is choreographed by Christopher L. Huggins, pays tribute to Mandela and the work he did to dismantle segregation and champion racial reconciliation. Ten dancers, wearing the colors of the South African flag, channel his strength by starting off with slow, powerful movements that gradually build to fast, almost frenetic steps that expel energy in keeping time with African drum music. When you think your heart will explode with the intensity, the steps taper and finish as they started—with quiet force.


Essence is an equally emotional journey, but with a single dancer. DBDT: Encore! Artistic Director Nycole Ray, starting her 21st season with the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, performs this work that’s inspired by the women who have shaped choreographer Christopher Huggins’ life. It’s humorous at times. You see Ray grapple with uncertainty at others. But one thing is sure. As artistic director Young says, “After that solo, you’ll never look at a chair the same.”

The second half of the program is about imagery. In the Dallas premiere of Displaced, Yet Rebirthed, choreographer and Hurricane Katrina survivor Michelle N. Gibson honors fellow survivors and the more than 1,800 people whose lives were lost 13 years ago. “There are so many New Orleanians who are here in Dallas, so we’re always trying to keep bridging these cultures,” Young says. “You can’t do anything without community.”

Gibson, who came to Dallas after evacuating her hometown, uses both struggle and triumph to bring the heart of New Orleans to the stage. The piece begins with a quintessential Big Easy scene: friends in the neighborhood greet each other, hugging and catching up while slow jazz plays in the background. But this is short-lived. A recording of the mayor at the time ordering the evacuation of New Orleans ushers in frantic running, which gives way to struggle in the wake of the catastrophe. But, proving that the spirit of the city and its people can’t be kept down, the dancing once again turns to healing and joy, and a live New Orleans-style band joins the stage. Displaced is as much about the narrative as the movement. In fact, the dancing is only made possible by the story that the dancers must tell. It’s raw, it’s poignant, and it’s beautiful.

It’s fitting that the final element in Cultural Awareness is Tribute, choreographed by the famed Matthew Rushing. It pays homage to their “dancestors,” dance mentors who have paved the way for these dancers in the present and allowed them to reach their full potential. Tribute employs spoken word, song, and tap, and uses movement to mimic tree roots, rising from the ground and uniting as one, empowered and alive.

“All of the spoken word transpired from conversations with the dancers,” Young says. “Before we learned any dance movements, we sat down and talked about what the piece meant. They sent information about who their ‘dancestors’ were and why they were important to them. That’s why it’s heartfelt. This is the second time we’ll be presenting it because we have new company members, two men and two women. It brings new life to the piece automatically. The tree of life here with our organization is ever-expanding. The branches are getting bigger and bigger.”