In its variations of dancing ability and choreographic talent, the "Black Dance Retrospective" at the John Anson Ford Theater on Sunday seemed essentially a black "Kaleidoscope": a sampler showcase with highly suspect standards of quality control.
Yes, this "Dance Park" event offered major pleasures:
Rubber-legged Chester Whitmore dodging and springing through vintage eccentric tap. Alvin Ailey alumnus Ronald Brown stretching his long, elegant arms into sinewy statements of love and gratitude. Tiny Sadie Lee of the Diamano Coura West African Dance Company flinging herself ecstatically through back hinges.
Such performances reflected the energy, individuality and technical expertise of black dance at its best--and put to shame the ragged dancing and often inept choreography on the same program.
Consider the ridiculous solo "Whispers," in which the out-of-shape Lettie Battle danced (none too securely) a kind of choreographic reduction of the Grace Jones role in "Conan the Destroyer," wearing what seemed like some Frederick's of Hollywood vision of gladiator drag.
Consider Ruby Millsap's "Souvenir," which reduced Vietnam trauma and violence against women to soap melodrama and contained in the same 60 seconds two of the primo cliches of modern dance: slow-motion combat and silent screams. A gutsy actress but a crude, clumsy dancer, Millsap cast herself opposite Forrest Gardner, who matched her in intensity but overwhelmed her in dance power, control and sense of style.
Like Battle and Millsap, Brown adopted a familiar '50s jazz-modern idiom for his conventional yet heartfelt "Love Letter" solo. As for Whitmore, he served as the centerpiece of a confused patchwork of social and show dancing that gave the evening its title.
Whitmore's drastically uneven suite placed largely straightforward reconstructions of period dances (his "Charleston" sequence, for instance) alongside devitalized distortions (Thelma Robinson's staging of "The Black Bottom"). His small, hard-working company had loads of spirit, but not the skill for most of the material.
Both Whitmore's "Retrospective" and the pieces by Diamano Coura featured live accompaniment--and what a difference that made from jukebox playbacks elsewhere. Indeed, the West African-style drumming sustained a level of excitement that Lee and the other Diamano Coura women rode to something like glory.
Unified by the strong rhythmic pulse, Zak Diouf's "Klake" (from Liberia), "Ekon-Kon" (from Senegal) and "Marakadon" (from Mali) incorporated in cohesive line dances both flashy solo displays and bits of character pantomime. At one point, with every engulfing, galvanic lunge, the dancers blew a wave of kisses forward--kisses from the vortex of a small on-stage tornado. The audience, understandably, went bananas.