‘Complex Rhythms’ showcases why diversity in the arts matters

Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 12:01pm

"Complex Rhythms"

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Asha Lewis / Daily

Throughout the performing arts, diversity initiatives are beginning to take on historical problems in representation — particularly regarding directors, choreographers, conductors and others important to and yet removed from the performance process. This past weekend, the Department of Dance demonstrated their dedication to diversity with “Complex Rhythms,” a multi-work performance featuring three works by women of color.

The evening spanned four works: “7 x 12 And A Little Bit of Cha-Cha,” “Studio A, will you die with me?,” “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” and “Shelter.” Two of the works, “7 x 12 And A Little Bit of Cha-Cha” and “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” were choreographed by SMTD professors; the other two were by guest artists.

The evening opened with Professor Robin Wilson’s “7 x 12 And A Little Bit of Cha-Cha,” featuring the music of Marwan Amen-Ra, Alina Moor and SMTD Lecturer of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation, Marion Hayden. Though it began with singing and limited movement, the work quickly morphed into a vibrant, colorful display. The dancers wore simple costumes of bright and solid colors. The cast of 12 traversed the stage from left to right, sometimes diverging into smaller groups and solo moments.

At one point, the ensemble began walking repeatedly across the stage. As they continued walking, their motions went from simple to expressive, elaborate to profound. Motions that once represented walking began to represent dance. This was my favorite moment of the work, the moment at which human aspects of the elaborate, eye-catching choreography became apparent to me.

The second work, “Studio A, will you die with me?,” was a solemn, thought-provoking meditation on race. As the choreographer described in the program, “‘Studio A, will you die with me?’ is a fire ritual that works to disrupt the anti-black, heteronormative and capitalist structures that live within the fabric of Western dance studios and dance curriculums.”

The work began with a long blue sheet being drawn across the front of the stage and giant metal racks with candles on them being placed in the back. This blue sheet was quickly covered in miniscule sparkling objects that I can only assume were stones. The dancers, wearing neutral grey/green clothing, moved slowly across the stage. After a little while, they put on sparkling masks that all but completely obscured the facial region.

This, combined with the dim lighting, made individual identities all but unidentifiable. And while one member of the ensemble performed an impressive and elaborate dance, the others moved slowly and deliberately, their lack of motion perhaps representing more than their motion.

The finish was truly unforgettable. The music ended, the cast pulled off their masks and the audience sat in rapt attention. As the ensemble cleaned up the cloth and wheeled off the candles, the audience sat in silence, processing the poignant, complex work that had just occurred.

The third work was “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” by Professor Bill DeYoung. It featured a recording of Leonard Bernstein’s “Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs” by the University Symphony Band conducted by Professor Michael Haithcock.

The set was magnificent, containing individual points of light and grey rectilinear shapes mimicking an urban skyline on a starry night. The dancing, much like the music, reflected big band jazz taken to a hectic, almost frenetic extreme. Piercing jazz lines and frantic blues riffs were matched with busy ensemble motions and energetic solo moments. The dancers’ stamina was on display, as they managed to maintain for ten minutes what few could for one minute.

After a short intermission, percussionist Marwan Amen-Ra returned to the stage accompanied this time by Professor (and in this instance narrator) Robin Wilson for Jawole Willa Jo Zillar’s “Shelter.” Wilson and Department of Dance Chair, Anita Gonzalez, were both part of the original 1988 performance, a performance attended to address “the suffering and isolation of homelessness” according to dramaturge Efe Osagie, who is a Michigan in Color editor for The Daily. The work had been modified following Hurricane Katrina to address those made homeless as a result of this storm; this was the version of the work being presented.

The performance was simple, yet profound. As Wilson read simple poetry and prose, the percussionist and the dancers evoked the struggle of these people. It was mournful at times, violent at others. It built to great heights, with dancers convulsing on the ground as the percussion aggressively beat time. And it traversed considerable lengths, the deliberacy of motion never ebbing though the intensity waned.

Though it ostensibly lasted over twenty minutes, it was engaging to the point where I lost track of time. It was a fitting end to the night and a stunning testament to the works of those outside the traditional canon of Western dance, particularly women of color. It was both a reminder for the need to increase the diversity of the performing arts and an example of the amazing work being done by those within the canon.