Seeking to define the American experience, choreographers of the 1940s gave us dramatic characters. They peopled their works with pioneers and gunslingers, sailors on shore leave and jilted lovers out for revenge. In contrast, Dawn Marie Bazemore, a contemporary dancemaker, gives us Ella Watson, the humble, African-American cleaning woman pictured holding a broom and mop against the background of an American flag in a celebrated photograph by Gordon Parks (see below). Bazemore’s dance The New Tide, which borrows its title and some of its imagery from a book of Parks’ photographs, received its premiere March 31 at the Nimbus Arts Center in Jersey City, as part of Nimbus Dance’s genre-busting program, “The New Americana.”
Haltingly, and with dolorous setbacks, the conversation about our national identity advances toward greater inclusion. Perhaps this is why two of the three works on the show’s program adopted an upbeat tone. Both Bazemore and Samuel Pott — the artistic director of Nimbus Dance, whose 2022 Spring also was performed — expressed a bubbly confidence in the future. The dissenting voice belonged to choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller, whose gloomy but seductive Dew Point ‘68 contains images of war and separation pointing to a tragic outcome.
The New Tide is a multimedia piece, but Bazemore makes a point of keeping things real. She shows us the machine that projects Parks’ photographs onto a moveable screen, and the clothes rack from which the dancers take their costumes. On the backdrop, the images become monumental, diminishing the performers.
Yet Bazemore’s choreography asserts itself. Tyler Choquette, imprisoned within a tight group and facing the wrong way, becomes an uncomfortable minority of one. Aanyse Pettiford-Chandler recreates the frozen image of Watson with her broom, but we also see the dancer’s shoulders working as she struggles to advance. Sometimes, her hands are bound behind her back; at other times she crosses them over her body, shielding herself. When someone hands her the broom again, she turns to take it with an expression that isn’t quite resignation.
In other segments, a trio of fashionably dressed women preen and cavort with manic energy; and Xavier Alexander makes love to a cello, caressing it and dipping it like a dance partner. Without the instrument, he is bereft, but Mika Greene shows up, miraculously bringing the instrument to life. Throughout, the dancing is buoyed by the mellifluous voice of Sam Cooke singing classics like “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Jesus Gave Me Water” and “Ain’t That Good News.”
Parks’ photograph of Watson standing reedy and erect echoes another American icon, Grant Wood’s portrait of a sober Iowa farmer and his daughter in “American Gothic.” Now imagine Wood’s homespun pair transformed, yet again, into the protagonists of a dance in which, instead of stoically enduring hail and locusts, they become active storm chasers. In Bhuller’s Dew Point ‘68, thunderheads roll across the landscape, ready to unleash nature’s fury, as Alexander and Leighann Curd tangle center stage. Staggering or swaying in the wind, the dancers seek stability together, experimenting with different handholds, hooking and clasping, and leveraging their bodies in increasingly acrobatic moves.
Eventually they find themselves in a war zone, with missiles flashing and the chopping sound of helicopter gunships overhead. Either lost or torn apart, the couple go their separate ways, Curd retreating into the wings as Alexander wriggles away on his back.
Curd and Alexander return to anchor Spring, a piece that builds upon the legacy of Martha Graham’s legendary Appalachian Spring.
Catching up with its lead characters, the Bride and Husbandman, we find them several years later surrounded by rambunctious offspring. The future those newlyweds once dreamed of has become all too real. Now the family is inclined to bicker, with Caleb Mansor the Prodigal Son demanding his freedom. Never mind. The “Spirit” of American optimism rebounds in the person of Choquette; and when Shayla Hutton (as “Promise”) claps her hands and darts through the crowd, she banishes negative thoughts.
Pott concludes the piece by flooding the stage with dance students, who overcome our nation’s problems with their winning smiles and the power of “Awww …”
Hoping the next generation will do better is classic “Americana.”
For more on Nimbus Dance, visit nimbusdance.org.
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