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Reframing the Narrative

What is freedom? And how do you keep working to reclaim freedom with fresh energy and joy? Former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer and now curator and advocate Theresa Ruth Howard prefers to work from conversation-stirring inquiries rather than dead-end statements. All the same, in the middle of the Kennedy Center’s “Pathways to Performance: Exercises in Reframing the Narrative,” Kiyon Ross’s new ballet “Quick Pleasure” shone like a resounding answer to this project’s key questions.

Performance

Pathways to Performance: Exercises in Reframing the Narrative

Place

Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, Washington D.C., July 2, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

Miranda Templer Silveira, Leiland Charles, Ashely Murphy-Wilson, Jonathan Philbert,  Ashton Edwards, Princess Reid in Jennifer Archibald's “Home.” Photograph by Shoccara Marcus

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On the Eisenhower Theater stage, two of the country’s most interesting and exciting younger dancers cavorted to a fast waltz with a Prokofiev-like edge of slyness. (The composer was Oliver Davis.) Dressed in burning orange, Zsilas Michael Hughes ended a whirr of pirouettes with sky-tossed arms and a silly head-bobble; Ashton Edwards flicked delicate and impeccably turned-out legs through a tricky test of supported turns, then stretched into a retire balance that paused like a roller coaster about to crest its peak. Here were two gender non-binary Black dancers, friends and fellow company members at Pacific Northwest Ballet, dancing with a joy that transcended their identities—but didn’t negate them. Their teasing, devil-may-care rapport could not have been more galvanizing.

The original question of 2022’s “Reframing the Narrative” project was this: What would happen if Black-identifying dancers from predominantly white companies were brought together to work with Black choreographers, thus given the chance to dance in a Black-defined space for the first time in their careers? Two years later, this new “Exercises in Reframing the Narrative” program extended the experiment, jettisoning 2022’s multi-company festival, but still bringing together dancers from across the country to create new works at both Jacob’s Pillow and the Kennedy Center. This year’s “Pathways” also convened a conference for dance writers, led by Howard, which I attended with the aid of a travel stipend from the nonprofit Critical Minded (complicating my ability to project objectivity in a review, but also re-energizing my criticism practice at a time when the dance writing field can feel fated for imminent extinction).

For the dance writers, this was an intense three days of heated debates, despairing laments, and passionate resolutions to write honestly and thoughtfully even as challenges continue to mount. Behind closed studio doors, meanwhile, the dancers were surely experiencing trials and tribulations, since they had only two weeks to bring together a world premiere by Jennifer Archibald to cap the show. To their great credit, though a few moments on stage did feel like an “exercise,” the performance as a whole was a wonder.

Ashely Murphy-Wilson and Jonathan Philbert in Donald Byrd's “From Other Suns.” Photograph by Shoccara Marcus

It launched with excerpts from “From Other Suns,” the ballet made for the first “Reframing the Narrative” back in 2022 by Donald Byrd. The great luxury here was the stirringly atmospheric music by Carlos Simon played by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra's strings under the Panamanian guest conductor Kalena Bovell. The point of curiosity, for me, was Byrd’s obvious conversation with George Balanchine’s “Agon”—Bryd, based in L.A. and N.Y. in the 80s and 90s and now rooted in Seattle, is highly experienced and usually strikingly original in his aesthetic. “From Other Suns” gave us the same black and white practice clothes costumes as “Agon,” the same lines of dancers with linked arms executing turned-in/turned-out prancing patterns. It also offered a twist on “Agon’s” central pas de deux—in Byrd’s world it is the woman rather than the man who suddenly lies on the floor. In fact this happens several times in Byrd’s ballet, but rather than trembling with anxiety, the woman lolls with a languid, sometimes leg-fluttering playfulness. The majestic Whitney Huell of Kansas City Ballet reigned in this ballet, as she did across the program. The curving line of dancers slinking towards what felt like a grand sunset, gradually linking hands, made a stirring finish.

Company artists in Portia Adams’ “Faintly Seen.” Photograph by Shoccara Marcus

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo dancer Portia Adams was one of the more “emerging” choreographers on the bill, having won a commission from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet after the Pathways mentorship program in 2022; her premiere quartet for this program, “Faintly Seen,” felt unfinished, moving from bluesy piano music by Anomalie to the fluttering bright repetitions of a recorded Sufjian Stevens score. But it offered plenty of interest in stately back-to-back partnering, and a chance for Miranda Silveira Templer (formerly of San Francisco Ballet) to bound about the stage in some wonderfully shaped petite allegro work.

Meredith Rainey was the other greener choreographer. (He too won a commission from the Royal Winnipeg after 2022’s Pathways mentorship.) His premiere “Where They Meet” was, to me, the vaguest work on the program, but I’ll admit an instant prejudice against ballets that rearrange chairs to suggest domestic drama. With a cast of two women and three men (Princess Reid and Joshua Bodden were impressively focused) this could have been an intriguing narrative of multiple relationship triangles. Instead, the dynamics were broader: chairs in circles and lines, frustrated slamming of the furniture without cause, sudden explosions of angsty entrechats (very nice height and batterie, Corey Bourbonniere). Grounded lyricism gave way to a jerky gestural phrase and a group hug. The music was well-known Michael Nyman minimalism, beautifully conducted by Bovell. In fairness, the overall audience reaction was warm, and the two women behind me sighed, “That’s sweet.”

Leiland Charles in Jennifer Archibald’s “Home.” Photograph by Shoccara Marcus

Then came the just-completed closer by Jennifer Archibald, an Ailey alum who has been gathering momentum with commissions across the country since her career shift from commercial choreography to ballet. I have yet to see her most serious works—she has made “docu-ballets” drawing on interviews and archival sources about the Tulsa race massacre and a Jewish dancer who worked with the French Resistance during the Holocaust. Archibald’s premiere “Home” was clearly designed to be a crowed-pleaser, but not without depth.     

This was ambitious work for a ballet made in two weeks. It began with tender classical lyricism to piano and string music by Carlos Simon and Alexis Ffrench, (heard recorded)—swift partnering punctuated with a few terrific male solos and duets. In one of the tastefully gymnastic moments, a dancer caught another’s foot with surprising spontaneity, propelling him into a back walkover. Conventional balleticism shaded into a faster, more urgent vocabulary.

And then, in a decisive break, came the joy. Nina Simone’s voice commanded our ears, from a 1968 interview: “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear. I mean, really. No fear!” On strutted the dancers to a grooving bass line and light, swift percussion: Foremost Poet’s remix of Simone’s “Blackbird,” which in the original is just drums, handclaps, and Simone’s defiant voice. The dancing became rhythmic, hip-swirling, celebratory. But beneath it all, this was a complicated kind of joy. Why you want to fly, Blackbird? Simone sang over and over. You ain’t never gonna fly. This was not club music, nor was this the blues, exactly—at its core, in a transcendence of genre, it was a simultaneous acknowledgement of oppression and a self-possessed rejection of it.

Abundance became the visual theme. More and more dancers dressed in white joined the party on stage until the original eight had grown to 13, enough to fill the space. “Ain’t never gonna fly?” Just watch them. This triumph of a program is now going to the Jacob’s Pillow Festival July 10-11.    

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

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