Dance review: August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble a force at Black Dance Festival
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By now we all feel that Pittsburgh dodged a bullet when Hurricane Sandy dealt the area only a glancing blow. But the residual effects from the monster storm popped up this weekend at the second annual Black Dance Festival, on view at the August Wilson Center.
The first of two programs, set for Friday and Saturday evenings, took on a whole new vibe when most of the members from the New York City-based Camille A. Brown & Dancers could not make it to Pittsburgh.
They had planned to perform Ms. Brown's latest work, "Mr. TOL E. RAncE," which had its world premiere in September at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, and it would have been intriguing to see how the piece had evolved in the ensuing month. But only dancer Waldean Nelson and pianist Scott Patterson were able to make their way here. The talented Mr. Patterson began by cutting his wide musical swath on a grand piano instead of sitting behind an upright, while photos of black television stars, from "Amos 'n Andy" to "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," played on a screen behind him.
He then launched into "What a Wonderful World," part of "The Real Cool," a reflective and moving shadow dance where Mr. Nelson drew from both the humor and pain experienced by blacks in the media.
But that meant that the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble had to shoulder the burden for the rest of the program. The company was already scheduled to dance Terence Greene's "Breath," with James Washington gathering his own collective group around him in several pivotal solos.
Mr. Greene never lacks for energy -- he could fire up the American grid himself. But this festival showed that he is reinventing himself, harnessing that abundant flow of movement without losing impact. AWCDE also performed his "Faith" (his inspiration is often encapsulated in the titles), already seen here with large-cast workshop groups and downsized for the company, which gave the work a sharper focus.
The revised program also contained Antonio Brown's "Unwritten," unusual in how it tapped the creative process of an author, with the dancers roiling about like characters from a novel. It wasn't always an easy task, but his fresh sense of phrasing easily captured the viewer's imagination.
A lively excerpt from Ms. Brown's "Second Line" closed all four programs. Inspired by the celebratory funeral processionals found so distinctively New Orleans, it is one of the more popular works in the AWCDE repertoire.
That meant that Philadanco provided the lead-in for AWCDE in two programs on Sunday, a bold move from the local group's artistic director Greer Reed, and despite the fact that Joan Meyers Brown brought one of her strongest company incarnations to town.
In just two works, these dancers showed the versatility inherent in their strength. They opened with the familiar "Suite Otis," seen here over the years from companies such as Alvin Ailey and Dayton Contemporary. It was still emotionally satisfying with the Otis Redding songs and served as a great showcase for the company's infallible technique.
Then they turned the dance around with Rennie Harris' "Wake Up," a percolating tribute to the history of hip-hop, just a tad long but nonetheless mesmerizing.
Perhaps the best thing about the Black Dance Festival was its expansion to include an educational component, with workshops and a Saturday afternoon performance for younger dancers in emerging companies such as Mr. Harris' second company, RHAW, Mr. Greene's Urban Dance Collective, Philadelphia's Danse4Nia Repertory Ensemble and Pittsburgh's new Hill Dance Academy Theatre.
With friends and parents in tow, that also meant that about half of the audiences were making their first visit to the August Wilson Center. And its namesake dance group showed that it had taken on a steep learning curve. During the course of just a year, AWCDE was no longer a transitional company for young dancers, but instead became a destination in itself.
First Published November 6, 2012 12:00 am