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Dance Review : Conservative Approach in '21st Century' Performances : Presentation Markedly Uneven in 'Black Choreographers' Fest at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman


On the impressively wide, uncomfortably low stage of the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at Cal State L.A., the current, fifth edition of "Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century" turns its back on showcasing innovation to survey strategies of artistic survival in the '90s.

The opening, five-part program began Thursday with Phyllis Gomer's restlessly eclectic quintet "Urban Sonnet," performed by her locally based Bridge Dance Theatre to an atmospheric score by Leigh Anne Gillespie. Relentlessly ordinary, it might be considered the bottom line of contemporary African American achievement. Yes, it gets worse than this, but never more bland.

The program ended with an act of conservation: Philadanco's gorgeously danced reconstruction of Gene Hill Sagan's imposing 1984 group ritual "Elegy," a work very much in the African American mainstream.

Sagan's vocabulary integrated balleticisms and Africanisms with great sophistication, and his talent for group tableaux often yielded thrilling large-scale imagery. Unfortunately, "Elegy" also proved spectacularly unmusical--its rhythms and attack wildly out of sync with the lyricism of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Without question, Bridge and Philadanco are marking time in a disastrous period for the arts in America--the former with hand-me-down abstraction, the Philadelphia-based ensemble by relying on revivals. In contrast, Winifred R. Harris made a sense of crisis central to her latest work, "What's Behind Door 1."

Harris' typically surging formal group dances for her Between Lines company kept shattering here into depictions of societal violence and despair: an execution, a suicide, desperate addicts, leering whores--and fascists-on-the-march.

Music and lyrics by Me'Shell NdegeOcello (partly performed live) reinforced the emphasis on documenting "the evils of this world," but hurt the work in some ways--too many short sections to allow anything other than hit-and-run effects, for instance. However, "Door 1" confirmed Harris' stature as Southern California's most thoughtful and creative African American choreographer, leaving other artists on the program looking awfully conservative.

Using classic blues recordings, Reggie Wilson's quartet, "Peace," initially provided gritty gestural character sketches of Southern life and a striking three-way division of stage space. But as the piece grew more conventionally choreographic, it also became increasingly arbitrary in its expressive choices and curiously devitalized, despite committed dancing by Wilson's New York-based Fist and Heel Performance Group.

Combining liquid undulations with the trashiest throw-the-ballerina maneuvers since "Spring Waters," Dwight Rhoden's trio, "Glass Chains," looked like a cartoon remake of one of Donald Byrd's sardonic investigations of sexual consumerism. Shirley Horn's music gave it a modicum of class, and Rhoden's Dayton-based Complexions company sold it with faultless bravado.

* The "Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century" festival continues tonight at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 2 in the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the campus of Cal State L.A. (213) 466-1767. Two different programs are scheduled with five companies apiece. (The program reviewed here repeats tonight only.) Tickets: $18-$22.

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