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A Duet of Right and Wrong : Their art is not the same, but their concerns are. Choreographer Winifred R. Harris and pop artist Me'Shell NdegeOcello are collaborating on a project fueled by their frustration with today's world.

November 06, 1994|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a Times staff writer

Choreographer Winifred R. Harris and recording artist Me'Shell NdegeOcello are seated on the hardwood floor of a Cal State Los Angeles rehearsal room, chatting about their work as dancers dress to leave. Five-year-old Askia NdegeOcello wanders nearby, exploring the space and scoring the proceedings with periodic sharp toots on his plastic flute.

Harris' long wild locks and delicate gold nose-ring contrast with NdegeOcello's Spartan shaved head and wire-rimmed specs. The dancer is as animated as her partner is laconic. But the yin-yang works surprisingly well, and it's more than surface deep.

The two women, who share an L.A. home, are making their debut as professional collaborators. And it's a potentially explosive artistic combination.

Harris has been riding a fast track in local modern dance circles with choreography marked by a vibrant mix of balletic and Afrocentric movement vocabularies.

NdegeOcello (pronounced: N-day-gay-O-chello)--whose album "Plantation Lullabies" was released to acclaim last year on Maverick, Madonna's record label--has broken through with energetic, assertive music that weaves together funk, jazz and hip-hop. This is her first time scoring concert dance.

Yet as stylistically individualistic as these two artists are, they also share a passionate concern for social ills. "For me, the project started out of my frustration at watching what's going on," says Harris, referring to society's and pop culture's saturation with violence as well as other problems.

Harris' company, Between Lines, performs "What's Behind Door 1" as the kickoff to Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, the fifth annual festival of African American dance, on Thursday. The festival's two programs also feature Philadanco, New York's Reggie Wilson, Dwight Rhoden and more--all of whom will be offering West Coast premieres--and will be presented through next Sunday as part of the inaugural season at Cal State L.A.'s new Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex.

This piece marks a new direction for Harris. "It's experimental in a way," she says of the project that the two women initiated themselves, as a result of their affinity for each other's work. "I feel a need to reach more people and sometimes through language we do that. Part of moving into words with this piece was we feel bombarded with all that's going on."

"What's Behind Door 1" includes scenarios evoking oppressive situations, from enslavement to prostitution. "Some of us turn our heads away and some of us just quietly sit back," Harris says. "There's so much going on that we have not taken time to look at it and say 'does this matter to me?' And that's what's going on in the piece for me."

Harris and NdegeOcello may be a team, but they have pointedly different takes on what they do. "Dance to me--and we fight about this all the time--is like a dead art," says the soft-spoken but blunt NdegeOcello. "I'm sorry, no one gets it. I just don't think people come to dance concerts.

"I don't want to sound like I'm spewing off rhetoric, but it's the MTV generation," NdegeOcello continues. "They want something quickly and easily digestible. No one has an attention span past a good five minutes of raunchiness."

Still, NdegeOcello finds the medium liberating. "I'm trying to have experiences and write about them, but they aren't necessarily falling into an eight-bar chorus, an eight-bar verse and then an eight-bar chorus again, that's all," she says.

Meanwhile, Harris plays the idealist to her partner's realist. "I'm the woman who lives in the fairy-tale land of 'they'll get it one day, somebody will get it,' " she says.

But the two women are right in sync when it comes to a sense of outrage at the current state of affairs.

Seeing the movie "Pulp Fiction," for instance, only confirmed Harris and NdegeOcello's feelings. "They made such lightness of all this killing that's going on and it just really bothers me," says Harris. "I've been seeing a lot of this (violent) element thrown into dance lately too, and it seems to me that it's done just for shock value."

And the artists have turned such outrage into grist for the mill. "I know violence is a part of everyday life, but I find it appalling," says NdegeOcello. "You become somewhat numb to it. You kind of move on. That (sense of shock) is what's inspiring the music."

It is, for both, a rejection of the contemporary tendency to turn the other cheek. "I believe in a lot of ways that there are no shades of gray, there just are right and wrong," says NdegeOcello. "It's so funny that that (kind of value system) is nonexistent in these times. What's in style is I can sit through a film and watch people die senselessly."

Harris is no stranger to addressing problems onstage, although she hasn't previously done so as explicitly.

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