December 09, 2018

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Review: A Living Archive of Contemporary Black Dance

Review: A Living Archive of Contemporary Black Dance
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Photo

Gesel Mason in Donald McKayle’s “Saturday’s Child,” from the poem by Countee Cullen.

Credit
Enoch Chan

After performing in seven works by seven choreographers on Friday night, the dancer Gesel Mason said with a laugh, “I can’t keep doing this.” Fifteen years ago, Ms. Mason embarked on an ambitious and necessary project that has continued evolving and expanding, “No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.” Over the weekend, she presented it live at the Billie Holiday Theater in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, for what she said would be the last time.

The desire to move on is understandable. “No Boundaries,” a living archive of dances — mostly solos — by trailblazers including Rennie Harris, Donald McKayle and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, is a marathon of an evening for a dancer. Ms. Mason, who lives in Boulder, Colo., started the project in part to highlight the diverse styles of African-American choreographers, to challenge the notion of a monolithic genre called “black dance.” The stamina it demands — and that Ms. Mason elegantly summons — isn’t just about powering through so many pieces but about fully inhabiting each landscape, from the psychedelic fury of Ms. Zollar’s “Bent” (2004) to the supple intricacies of Kyle Abraham’s brand-new “Don’t Explain.”

Yet “No Boundaries,” which also includes candid video interviews with artists and academics, isn’t over; in some ways it’s just getting started. As Ms. Mason explained after the show (a presentation of 651 Arts), she plans to give it a home online as a digital forum with all of the project’s components, a collection that can continue to grow. Scholars of dance history and American history should take note.

Friday’s performance took on added resonance soon after it ended, with the death on Saturday of Mr. McKayle. His 1948 work “Saturday’s Child,” an interpretation of Countee Cullen’s poem, was on the program, and Ms. Mason delivered its piercing, sorrowful lines and gestures with nuanced conviction.

Mr. McKayle was also present on video, at one point critiquing the lopsidedness of discussions about black dance: “We could have a meaningful discussion about black dance with the larger dance community when they would also discuss white dance,” he said in a 2004 interview.

Photo

Ms. Mason in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s “Bent.”

Credit
Amitava Sarkar

Ranging between social commentary and more abstract explorations, the evening also featured David Rousseve’s “Jumping the Broom” (2005); Bebe Miller’s “Rain” (1989); Mr. Harris’s house-driven “You Are Why!” (2014), performed with Lisa Engelken and Mahayla Rose; and Ms. Mason’s “No Less Black” (2000), in which she read text to accompany MK Abadoo’s luxuriant dancing.

Dance, it’s no news, is a fleeting medium more difficult to preserve than other art forms: What happens to a choreographer’s work when it’s no longer performed? As artists like Stephen Petronio and Paul Taylor address questions of legacy through restaging initiatives, Ms. Mason is doing her own essential work of building an archive, whether onstage or online. Whatever its future form, “No Boundaries” already has helped to ensure that African-American voices and the dialogues they’ve prompted don’t vanish from the canon of contemporary American dance.



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