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Black Roots Traced In Modern Dance, Song

March 03, 1987|SHELLEY BAUMSTEN

Gospel music again proved its power to uplift the weary at the L.A. Afro-American Celebration of the Arts, Friday at the Japan America Theatre.

After a weak showing by Lula Washington's Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theater in the first half, William Couser's Jazz Dance Center presented gospel music that affirmed the power of faith and the resilience of the human spirit even in adversity.

Interlaced with simplistic narrative, Couser's "Sing a New Song" traced black American history from African roots through the promise of emancipation and the disappointments and challenges that followed.

From the African calypso "Uma Uma Bele" to the contemporary "Move On Up a Little Higher," from the plaintive "Oh, Freedom" to the exhilarating "Great Camp Meeting," singers Marilyn Brown, Richard Handly, Jantha Harris Whitmore and Johndrea Whitmore showed superb command.

Even Washington's company looked its best in a gospel dance suite featuring works by guest choreographers. Karen McDonald's bluesy "Mary, Don't You Weep" overlaid classic modern dance movement with gospel gesture and kept an ensemble of six thrashing, grieving women in focus dramatically and choreographically. Tony Lardge's "Lift Him Up" provided a vehicle for loose-limbed, joyous, energized ensemble dancing.

Elsewhere on the program, Washington and guest choreographer Rod Rodgers tackled themes of black experience with threadbare drama and recycled Afro/modern movement. The dancers were shaky in sustained movement and often tentative in attack. But Traveil Martino was a standout: like Washington, a strong, distinctive dramatic dancer even in banal material.

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