On Saturday, January 23rd, the 28th Annual International Conference and Festival of Blacks in Dance held their Founders / International Night Performance at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, hosted by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the founding of the International Association of Blacks in Dance. The evening opened with a screening of the trailer for Black Ballerina, a documentary film from Shirley Road Productions, produced and directed by Frances McElroy. You can find out more about the film here. After that, Cleo Parker Robinson, and her son, Malik Robinson, came on stage to declare January 23rd “Jonathan ‘J.P.’ Parker Day,” by reading the official declaration from John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado. Parker was Cleo’s father, who just passed in December, and he was groundbreaking in Denver’s art scene. You can find out more about him, here.
The evening was comprised of eleven performances by ten different dance companies. The majority of the dances were solos or duets, with the dance before the intermission and the final dance of the evening, being larger, ensemble pieces. Whoever came up with the program, order, and arrangement of the pieces throughout the night, was a genius. The first performance was from KanKouran West African Dance Company, based out of D.C. It looked like a traditional dance, beginning with three live drummers on stage filling the opera house with intense rhythms. Five dancers danced their way onto the stage, two women and three men, all in traditional dress. The dance was full of energy and celebration. Hands, hips, feet, chests, all worked the magic of the air and rhythm to raise up the audience, clapping to the beat, and the whole building. I don’t know what was more impressive, the dancers’ ability to stay so rooted to the earth, while reaching up to heavens, or the amount of pure joy each of their spirits beamed into the audience. We reacted appropriately with many hoots and hollers.
The next piece, Mending Hearts, was danced by Alexis Britford and Devin Baker from Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, and choreographed by Kiesha Lalama. The piece, through movement, light, and minimal furniture, explored the layers, changes, levels, distance, and space of relationship. Though the two rarely came together physically, it was clear they were dancing through something similar, finding and losing what they needed. After that, came two dancers from the company Robert Moses’ Kin, Crystaldawn Bell and Delvis Savigne Frinon, dancing an excerpt from Thick / Silt / Powder / Death. This was one of my favorite pieces of the evening for its intensity and the power of the human form that each dancer portrayed. There was also a visceral connection between the two dancers, that really, to me, seemed to stem from the universal power Bell could command with her shoulders and arms.
At this point, there was a change in the program, where one company was not able to perform. The substitution was a solo dance performed by Iquail Shaheed, a faculty member at the Alvin Ailey School for the last decade as well the founder of Dance Iquail. Shaheed’s range, power, and reach were something to behold, and he managed to produce a sort of heat energy across the stage, that bound the audience’s energy and attention to him. Then came the final performance before the intermission. An ensemble of nine dancers from Dallas Black Dance Theatre took the stage and everyone who was sitting in the opera house that night. Another of my favorite performances of the evening, Furtherance moved across the stage and the nine dancers in multiple movements: sometimes a solo, others a duet, at one point there were five dancers, and at others a female dancer in purple, singled out from the rest, moved around the other dancers, in and out of them, through them, both a ballerina and an African dancer with no separation between the two. I sensed a story of a journey of some kind, but was more fascinated by following the choreography, strength, and grace of the dance and dancers.
The second half of the evening began with a stunning performance from Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre, based out of Chicago. Choreographed by Kevin Iega Jeff, and danced by Jennifer Florentino and Joshua L. Ishmon to Nina Simone’s Wild is the Wind, the piece of the same name took the song and infused it with contemporary ballet to tell the love story. The dancers were clad in bright canary yellow and were, at times, leaves clinging to each other, birds clinging to the air and the wind, and even fallen flower petals scooped up and flung around wildly.
Next came two pieces from Lula Washington Dance Theatre, both choreographed by Lula Washington. The first piece, a solo danced by Bernard Brown, looked at the possibilities of life that could have been had by Treyvon Martin had it not been cut so short, and extends to others whose lives have been cut short by violence. Brown danced it with an intention, power, and engagement that was disturbing in the most appropriate way: that these lives cut short should disturb us. The second piece from this company, different than what the program listed, was an excerpt from Ancestors, powerfully danced by two men and one woman. The ancestors danced as though they were ethereal family members, both ultimately supportive of each other, and fighting each other to the end; they pushed, they pulled, they carried, they threw; and always, they loved.
The Philadelphia Dance Company, or PHILADANCO, was the next company to take the stage. Performing an excerpt from Bad Blood, Janine Beckles and Adryan Moorefield were power-houses of dance and connection. The program notes say the piece “reveals the power and magnetic pull of courtship rites, ownership and sex… in this ballet, there is a desperate and futile search for connection through physical impact.” Honestly, I could not describe it better. At times, it seemed as though they were just beautifully smashing their bodies together in hopes that they would stick.
The penultimate performance of the evening was a rich and moving celebration of the life of Dudley Williams, an Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre member for 40 years. Williams passed away last year at the end of May. Dancer Glen Allen Sims danced Love Songs, a piece Alvin Ailey choreographed for Williams in 1972. Sims danced the piece beautifully, with expression, poise, quiet grace and deep strength. Through the music, choreography, and costume, the audience was transported, transformed, by the most historical piece of the evening.
The final and most celebratory piece of the evening was Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble’s signature piece, Raindance, choreographed by Milton Myers. Not only was the entire ensemble dancing, but so were the four apprentices, and for closing part of the piece, a whole host of alumnae dancers joined the ensemble. It was my first time seeing Raindance, and what a joyous experience it was. The duets and smaller group sections of the piece were just as full and expressive as the ensemble numbers, but with more of an opportunity to focus on connection, relationship, and singular articulation. The dance is hypnotic, celebratory, ritualistic, spiritual, and even primordial. It was the perfect piece to end the evening—one full of celebration, honor, delight, love, support, and truly excellent dance.
Soma Feldmar: Soma Feldmar received her MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School, and is now working on her PhD in English from SUNY Buffalo, with a focus on poetics.Other, her first book of poetry, was published in 2009 from Capilano University Editions (CUE Books). Soma’s work has also appeared in various online and print journals. Her doctoral dissertation is on poet Robin Blaser and how his work brings the poetic and the ethical together, remaining open to the other and the unknown. Originally from Vancouver, BC, Soma recently relocated to Denver, CO, after five and half years in Buffalo, NY. Overjoyed to be back in Colorado, she has started her own business, Seamoon Editing Services and joined the writing team of Presenting Denver. As a former ballet, jazz, and modern dance student, Soma looks forward to more opportunities to combine her love of dance and her love of writing.