Gesel Mason opened her November performance at the Joyce Soho with a quote: “The work of black artists is as diverse and wide as the colors of the rainbow.”
, featured six works by six black choreographers, including mostly solos choreographed by Mason, Reggie Wilson, David Roussève, Donald McKayle, and Bebe Miller.
The project, conceived by Mason, intends to challenge the boundaries traditionally placed upon black choreographers—that Black Dance is “based in the Ailey tradition or Horton technique, as African dance, or as Negro Spirituals.” Segments of recurring documentary video instruct the audience in this concept, book-ending most of the pieces. Though informative, this created a somewhat stifling pedagogical overlay that felt more like a seminar than an augmentation of the dance.
Reggie Wilson’s (1992) is the first piece of the evening that Mason performs and she’s at her best. Wearing a white dress and unlaced black combat boots she walks in a plié position zigzagging upstage to downstage as she travels from left stage to right. Her arms pass through mimetic gestures—she maneuvers an oar on either side of her body, she wraps an unseen rope around her neck. Later she removes her boots and builds both momentum and articulation as she abandons her linear pathways. She bounds and runs. Her face flips between a pained grimace and a bright smile. Some of these opening gestures return as she changes into a black dress, puts on makeup and ties up her hair. Mason then carefully places a central circle of candles, lights them, and performs jumps and leaps around stage. The movement, constrained at first, transforms into expansive freedom, evoking potential themes of progress for Black Dance and the black experience.
The second piece, (2005) by Samantha Speis, the only piece not featuring Mason, seemed to be an exercise in tossed weight and bodies flung through the air by their own propulsion. The six dancers were like wooden marionettes, yanked off the floor by an excited puppeteer who then dropped them back to the floor to clunk, thud and bonk their bones into a heap of jumbled but still limbs.
David Roussève’s (2005), and Donald McKayle’s (1948) share a similar degree of theatricality and textual narrative. Roussève’s work revolves around the narrative of an enslaved man’s tragic secret marriage. Mason wears a tattered wedding dress and shackles on her wrists and ankles while performing this one. Mckayle’s piece features Mason speaking a cadenced, rhyming poem by Countee Cullen as she limps down stage in tattered flannel shirt and ragged pants. In both pieces the movement is pedestrian and grounded while the intention lies in giving the audience a definitive message.
Mason then performs her work, (2000), set to her own poetry. It brings up questions about Mason’s blackness, and her identification as “no less black” than a litany of public figures, from Audre Lorde to O.J. Simpson. Meanwhile, she sits with her back to us and darts her arms out from her sides, as if flinging away water. Eventually, her arm movements develop to smooth reaches that toss her about the stage. It’s a short piece and the coalescence of movement and text is simple and satisfying.
Bebe Miller’s (1989) closes the evening, with Mason in a red velvet dress and tights, the stage empty but for a plot of Astroturf upstage. The piece involves plenty of sweeps, slides and tracing of her limbs along the floor, followed by running, an impressive minute of lofty jumps and a gradual repose. Unfortunately, we are, by now, a bit oversaturated by Mason-as-soloist, and the piece suffers.
The program demonstrates a vast array of choreographic approaches and styles, refuting common stereotypes of Black Dance. Mason is capable of executing nearly any movement she is given, but the choice to work as the only soloist counters some of what is intended by the evening. Involving more black soloists in this project would seem to recognize the fundamental corollary that not only Black Dance but black dancers are, inarguably, “as diverse and wide as the colors of the rainbow.”
Corey Harrower is a Vermonter who studied Dance and English at Wesleyan University.