One of the last performances I saw pre- COVID was the Black Choreographers Festival (BCF) at Dance Mission Theater. So it was with great anticipation that I purchased a ticket to see BCF’s New Voices/New Works on Sunday, July 17, 2022. Upon entering, I was delighted to discover that during the pandemic Dance Mission Theater had been renovated. What was once a warren of black corridors is now open space, painted in white with splashes of color in the form of an orange wall or a yellow door. Glass paneled doors pull light into auxiliary spaces. The bathrooms are palatial and accessible and an elevator is in the works. While the performance space has not yet been updated, I am told it is part of the overall plan. Preserving this community hub is essential to the Bay Area dance ecosystem, as it primarily serves teens, women and people of color.
The evening opened with a solo choreographed by Gregory Dawson and performed by Brooke Terry, an excerpt of his larger work The Joy Protocol. Terry entered from the wings with a stately cross-stage walk accompanied by the recorded saxophone riffs of jazz composer and frequent Dawson collaborator Richard Howell. With her long limbs and focused presence Terry took command of the space. In near constant movement, but never hurried, she seemed to be trying on poses, postures and walks. Rare stillness occurred as she paused to look outward as if confronting herself in the mirror before resuming her persistent quest.
Later, Saryah Colbert and Mariah Zancanaro filled the stage with angst in Marianna Hester’s Black Womanifesto. As the lights rose, a woman lay center stage, limbs akimbo, a bright orange shirt on one side of her and a pair of white pants on the other. A female voice tells us “It’s a process. Getting dressed is a process.” The narrator wonders “Will I attract unwanted attention? Do I want attention?” As the prone woman stands and struggles to get dressed a second woman, in matching orange top and white pants, enters lip-synching “Girl you got this! Now shut up and put on some clothes.” The duo bonded as they traded club dance moves to the aptly titled disco track Keep on Jumpin’. The women searched corner to corner, socially overwhelmed, judging themselves, running and reaching, then crawling arms outstretched reaching for the unattainable. Periodically the dancers found each other and mood shifted from frustrated to content and even playful, before thoughts of strangers’ gazes interrupted once more. The final tableau featured the women standing side-by-side, one’s head nestled upon the other’s shoulder, in it together for better or worse.
The evening’s crowd-pleaser was a work-in-progress solo by Erik K. Raymond Lee, performed to contemporary gospel song Trust Me by Lena Byrd Miles. It began with the audience fully lit and the performance area dark and empty, as Lee’s narrative set the stage for a powerful tribute to his faith and the necessity of trying new things and trusting in God. Lee entered through the audience, like any good preacher does. He pressed his hands into his chest. He knelt with his head to the ground. He high-stepped ecstatically, positively glowing as he danced, swinging his pointed finger around at the audience inviting everyone to join him. Lee’s fervency was contagious.
Also on the program were a work-in-progress solo choreographed by Natalya Shoaf entitled Garden of Peace, an improvisational solo by Dazaun Soleyn, a dynamic duet choreographed by Shawn Hawkins and performed by Hawkins and Justin Sharlman, and an enticing excerpt from Golden Thread: A Fairytale choreographed by Kendra Barnes and Yeni Lucero, set to premiere in December 2022.
Some of my richest dance memories are courtesy of BCF. There are the virtuosic solos danced by Robert Henry Johnson and Amara Tabor Smith and the show stopping tapping of Jason Samuel and Chloe Arnold. BCF introduced me to the work of choreographers Robert Moses and Gregory Dawson, whose companies I’ve since patronized. In contrast, this 2022 BCF program was full of heart, but felt compromised in comparison to pre-pandemic presentations. Each of the seven pieces was but ten minutes long, none included live music, and only one had a cast larger than two. Creating larger scale dance requires time and money, to pay performers and collaborators, rent studio space, and engage a venue.
Individual artists and smaller companies suffered disproportionally during the pandemic as they lacked access to arts-focused governmental support that larger institutions received. No doubt the self-choreographed solos are in some part a symptom of financial constraints. I applaud co-presenters Laura Elaine Ellis and Kendra Kimbrough Barnes for keeping the festival going and hope to see the community and funders invest in these Black artists by offering them the financial support required for this festival to thrive once more.
Jen Norris, July 18, 2022
Full program here.