Dance review: Emotions ran high during AWCDE in 'Paving the Road to Survival'

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The August Wilson Center for African American Culture and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh have joined in a series of "Great Collaborations" the past season. Using a variety of formats, including town hall meetings, an art exhibition on the Nazi Olympics, music and theater, the organizations have opened up lines of communication in a visionary way.

The final installment, "Paving the Road to Survival," took place over the weekend at the Center, featuring its own August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble in a pair of works that explored the yearlong theme from a movement perspective.

But there was another, all-too-rare work from Christopher Huggins, a black choreographer who created "The List," which traced the story of a Jewish family, transporting the audience from their dinner table in a ghetto to the "showers" of a concentration camp. It was followed by Kevin Iega Jeff's "Dedication (Revival)," which traced its story -- the power of tradition as it is passed from generation to generation, and how it should be celebrated.

Emotions ran high for a number of reasons. Four company members, all of whom had helped found the company four years ago, were on hand, with Naila Ansari, Annalee Traylor and James Washington performing for the last time at the center, and Kendra Dennard, who recently transitioned to a solo career, in the audience.

And the ensemble itself, under the direction of Greer Reed, has always moved from the gut with an emotional base and commitment that has never wavered.

Oddly enough, the program deviated from the group's original trajectory, where it established an adventurous and enviable repertoire from rising young choreographers, such as Kyle Abraham, Sidra Bell, Antonio Brown and Darrell Grand Moultrie.

The program could have used a third work, even a solo or duet, perhaps by a Jewish choreographer, to balance the program. As it stood, the evening took a weighty look back and tapped a more traditional vein of choreography that was undeniably an offshoot of the Alvin Ailey style.

"The List" funneled the horrors of World War II into a family of four -- father (Christopher Nolen), mother (Rebekah Kuczma/Ms. Ansari) and two daughters (Kaylin Horgan, Annalee Traylor) -- as they sat around the table. The father received a letter at the door, accompanied by four identification armbands.

What followed was Mr. Huggins' bare-knuckled response to the Holocaust, movement filled with escalating anger and frustration, love and fear. He took the audience inside the family's minds as they moved away from the table in a duet for the sisters, with children's voices singing on the "Schindler's List" accompaniment, and a particularly touching dance for the parents.

As they stripped away their clothing, they trembled, clustering together, hoping against hope, all to no avail. As powerful as it was, the long introductory text, which included Nazi historical facts and a personal Pittsburgh story, could have been enhanced with film footage or photos of the war, heightening the impact even more.

"Dedication" came from African roots, and the symbolism was not lost in the meaningful exchange between Mr. Nolen, the elder, and James Washington, a youth in a village.

We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and Mr. Washington literally did just that with Mr. Nolen. It led into a second section, where he spread the news as others took to the stage and gathered in an undulating circle. Although it was appealing, it could have been more character-driven, as in Mr. Iega Jeff's honestly simple "Ferrotype," choreographed with Gary Abbott.

The final movement, set to Patty Austin's "Live and Give Together," was a communal celebration, made all the more significant by the real-life parallel with the company dancers. Those who were leaving and those who were staying were enjoying their final moments.

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Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: jvranish1@comcast.net. She also blogs on www.pittsburghcrosscurrents.com


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