Singer, songwriter, and activist Odetta Holmes is the star figure in Matthew Rushing's Odetta, which presents vignettes that capture her plethora of musical genres. Film locations like Deep Ellum and Trinity Groves will amplify the homage. Amitava Sarkar

Theater & Dance

The Dallas Black Dance Theatre Has Big Plans for Black History Month

Starting this weekend, the dance company is using new locations and the power of film to lift up its poignant message during this month of celebration and reflection.

The Dallas Black Dance Theatre is honoring Black History Month this February with two virtual performances in which film and the power of location lend gravitas and resonance to each discreet work.

As with other dance companies during the pandemic, DBDT has turned to film to continue working. The dance company is also shifting the narrative to lend a new and altogether more immersive aspect to what would otherwise be staged works.

In Reminisce (Feb. 6) and Odetta and Mourner’s Bench (Feb. 20) the medium creates complex imaginative realities and deliver a collectively potent civil rights message. Here is what you can expect.

Reminisce (Feb. 6)

This Saturday’s Reminisce was filmed in downtown’s East Quarter, in spaces loaned to DBDT by adaptive reuse developer Patrick Todd of the real estate investment firm Todd Interests. “I was only asking for one,” says DBDT: Encore! artistic director Nycole Ray. But multiple venues in both the Block House (a striking former Masonic temple) and the five-story 2200 Main Street building were opened up at no cost.

“When we went into the spaces, my jaw dropped. These are beautiful,” Ray says. They were perfect for dance. “I was immediately inspired,” she says. (The dancers, meanwhile, would not see the spaces until the filming days. “And when they walked in, they were like, ‘Oh my goodness!’” Ray says.) The work uses numerous rooms, including the rooftops.

Ray chose Reminisce to move within the space at 2200 Main Street, which features beautiful windows. She shot in various areas, letting the light fall in different ways throughout the single-day shoot for Reminisce. The same space takes on different feelings.

“My hope is that it will take everybody on a journey,” Ray says. Part of that involves moving through time in a number that traces an arc from the beginning of the civil rights era and leads to today.

“I want it to be modern and yet old-school as well, traditional in a way” and nostalgic, overlaid with excerpts from speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr. that, in conjunction with the music of Andra Day, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight and The Pips, “transport you back then and into the now,” Ray says. “That was really important to me that it had a feeling of yesterday and today.

“It’s about being hopeless in some way. It’s about gaining the strength to fight,” she says of the episodic work. “It’s about fighting for your rights. It’s about how it’s not gonna work if we don’t come together. It’s gonna take you through all of those phases.”

There is a fine balance between the choreography and King’s taut and eloquent voice. And the rooftop scenes, she hopes, will evoke an urban setting—almost reminiscent of marches, speeches, and crowds.

“I hope that people are touched and inspired and uplifted, even though it has a message about despair. But hopefully people can see the light on the other side. Because we do get to that light on the other side [in the work],” Ray says. “How do we move forward in a positive trajectory?” she asks.

The piece suggests “that we can get through this. We’ve been through so much.”

Cultural Awareness (Feb. 20)

In Odetta, which will be presented on Feb. 20 as part of Cultural Awareness, space similarly becomes a way of understanding the life of Odetta Holmes. Matthew Rushing, the associate director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, choreographed the piece in 2014. He says it’s about getting to know her.

The filming shifts around locations from Deep Ellum to Trinity Groves, from Arts Mission Oak Cliff to someone’s nearby front porch. In a way, it mirrors the music of a prolific singer, songwriter, and activist, who sang in the 1963 March on Washington and whose contributions to the folk-revival landscape—including “Take This Hammer,” “A Hole in the Bucket,” and “This Little Light of Mine”—inspired Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin.

But Rushing didn’t know her when Alvin Ailey’s artistic director Robert Battle commissioned the piece in 2014.

For his research, he listened to all of her albums over the course of numerous months, immersing himself in her work. It ranges from spirituals to country, blues, and jazz, from musical theater to work and prison songs.

“All these different types of genres, she had a huge career in,” he says. “Once I figured out she was so multifaceted, I allowed that to guide the structure of the piece … I tried to take small excerpts from each of the genres she was known for and include them in the work,” translating kinetically the musical genres.

What helped him was taking different dance classes—Afro Caribbean, Afro Cuban, and West African classes, in particular. “I usually don’t have time to take classes, but I specifically wanted to take them because I knew I needed more vocabulary to capture or articulate Odetta’s gift,” he says—to speak Odetta’s musical language choreographically in a work that is also interspersed with sound bites from her interviews.

This will be the first time Odetta is reinterpreted through filming; DBDT actually staged the work in 2019. “It will bring even more life to it,” Rushing suspects of the new medium. “I come from dance theater and I love those two worlds coming together.”

In film, the opportunity exists for even more intimacy, “a closeness that you probably wouldn’t have, and that allows more room for storytelling,” he says.

“As far as this idea of being human—the idea of truly loving people for who they are, not judging people, embracing diversity: she’s all about that. She was about that years and years before we came up with these words. She lived it, and she lived it in her music,” he says.

Cultural Awareness (Feb. 20)

Existing perhaps in stark contrast is the other piece in the month’s later line-up: Mourner’s Bench, part of a larger work called Southern Landscapes, which was created in 1947 by Talley Beatty.

It is simple in its design: a man, a bench, six minutes. It has quiet moments, solemn pauses in which “I feel like you can feel the dancer breathing. You feel like you’re immersed inside of the man on the bench. You sort of understand what he’s going through,” says artistic director Melissa M. Young.

Set to the spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” the solo will be performed by Claude Alexander III. In his 11th season with the company, Alexander brings a gravitas and maturity to a piece that has the sweeping minimalism and majesty of Beatty’s choreographic style, which is marked by the influence of Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham.

The mournful, dolorous music pairs with the rich choreography for a powerful and intimate psychological moment.

In the solo, the dancer begins seated on the bench, his body pitched slightly forward, his gaze down. “And you almost wonder, ‘What is he thinking?’” Young says. He begins to move in what seems like slow motion, in languorous, controlled movements, and “It’s like he’s carving the air and [carving] the emotions.”

Sorrowful and transcendent at once, it’s a short work, but its demands include a taut relationship between dancer and prop.

The dancer must stand on the bench and lift his leg to hip height before descending to the floor on one leg. “And there’s this portion where he wraps his legs around the bench and does arm gestures that are swooping and lofty,” delicately taking control. “And when you see him stand up on the bench from this position, you’re like … It’s breathtaking,” says Young.

Just a man and a bench, and yet these moments of disbelief.

The work, which Young filmed near White Rock Lake and the Meyerson Symphony Center, carries the subtext of a novel on which the larger work is based. The Ku Klux Klan hovers in the background. It is a lot of weight to carry in six minutes.

“We are living Black history every day of the year,” Young says. “This is just a time when people broaden their perspective on different communities.”

Both works, she says, were chosen for their historical value. Talley Beatty, Matthew Rushing, and Odetta Holmes all deserve attention.

“We want them to feel like they had an experience,” she says. “Like they went somewhere.”


How to Watch:

DBDT: Encore! Reminisce
Saturday, Feb. 6, 7 p.m.
A collaborative effort by DBDT: Encore! Artistic Director Nycole Ray, DBDT: Encore! Artistic Assistant Richard A. Freeman, Jr., and Encore! dancer Terrell Rogers
Tickets $16-$20

DBDT Cultural Awareness
Saturday, Feb. 20, 7 p.m.
Choreography for Odetta by Matthew Rushing and Mourner’s Bench by Talley Beatty.
Tickets $20-$30

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