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A Flawed Glimpse Of Black Dance

January 25, 1985|LEWIS SEGAL | Times Dance Writer

As television, the 90-minute "Dance Black America" on PBS tonight (8 p.m. on Channel 24; 9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15) is deplorably slipshod. But there's so much spirit, invention, skill and class in the choreography and performances that even the murky, woozy, confusing and often incompetent video approach can't utterly wreck the experience.

The telecast documents the important four-day festival presented in April, 1983, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. However, directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus can't decide whether they want to preserve stage performances, hang out with participants or use the material for a video history of black dance in America. So they do all three--badly.

There's no focus--sometimes literally--and frequently no sense that Pennebaker and Hegedus have any idea what will turn up next in their viewfinders. Performance footage alternates with vintage film clips and encounters with the dancers backstage. The cameras endlessly zoom, pan and tilt trying to cover some part of the dancing, but often supply no overview of a group dance.

The longest, slickest, most familiar piece on view--Louis Johnson's "Fontessa and Friends," danced by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater--is also the least typical, for the festival really has major revelations to offer . . . revelations about old black social and theatrical dance idioms that had sensational originality before they were ripped off, cleaned up and simplified by the white American show business establishment.

Revelations, too, about a level of black creativity in America today: people like Garth Fagan (Bucket Dance Theater) who have reconceived their dance heritage in contemporary concert-dance terms and offer an exciting, distinctive alternative to the stale jazz-modern forms reworked by many black choreographers since the 1950s.

The range here is extraordinary, from the intense, confrontational modern dance solo "Junkie" by Eleo Pomare to the jump-rope virtuosity of the Jazzy Jumpers--street athletics construed as dance.

Tap, ballet, cakewalk, break-dance, African ritual and jazz display: It's all here--a flawed glimpse of the greatness of a towering subject awaiting a worthy film maker.

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