Eisenhower Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC
October 29, 2015

Carmel Morgan

Arcell Cabuag and Shayla Caldwell in Why You Follow/Por Que Sigues Photo Jati Lindsay

Arcell Cabuag and Shayla Caldwell in Why You Follow/Por Que Sigues
Photo Jati Lindsay

DC’s Kennedy Center is hosting a series of performances, the Jason + series, in which the Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz, Jason Moran, is paired with various artists. When Moran recently matched up with contemporary dance company Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE the result was not unsuccessful, but I’m not sure if either jazz fans or dance fans were completely satisfied.

The program began with a set by Jason Moran and The Bandwagon (bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits), with not a dancer was in sight. The meandering melodies and foot taps of the musicians prepared the audience for the choreography to come, but the set also served as a test of patience for those who were eagerly anticipating seeing the dancers.

Why You Follow/Por Que Sigues was worth the wait. In the same way one might roll a piece of hard candy in one’s mouth, savoring the flavors on different parts of the tongue, EVIDENCE’s Artistic Director/Founder Ronald K. Brown and his luminous dancers, accompanied by a mix of recordings, hit all the right notes. The dancers, wearing shades of blue, establish rhythms that twist through their torsos. Energy bursts through their chests. Knees and arms fly up, as in traditional African dance. Supple shoulders rise and fall and fingers occasionally point to the sky. The movement is distinct, unfaltering, and absolutely infectious. Remarkably, even when dancing in unison, the dancers are able to maintain and express their individuality. It was particularly pleasing to see Brown and some of his veteran dancers sharing the stage with some just beginning their careers. Despite the differing ages and experience levels, everyone offered something special, and moved with seeming effortlessness. It was also rewarding to see three dancers with connections to Washington, DC on stage: Annique Roberts, who graduated from Howard University with a B.F.A. in dance; and Brionna Edmundson and Sherman D. Wood who both attended DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

While Moran and The Bandwagon continued to rest, perhaps disappointing the jazz fans in the crowd, two contemplative excerpts were presented: One Shot: Bellows, a work inspired by photographs documenting black life in Pittsburgh from 1936-1975 by Charles “Teenie” Harris; and Lesson: March, a work set to a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Shayla Caldwell performed One Shot: Bellows, almost blending into the black and white photographs enlarged on the scrim behind her. So compelling are the photos that the soloist appears shrunken like an afterthought. The faces of children gathered on schoolhouse steps, staring straight at me, held my attention more than the movement, probably because the children towered over her.

Shayla Caldwell in One Shot: Bellows Photo Jati Linsday

Shayla Caldwell in One Shot: Bellows
Photo Jati Linsday

Lesson: March featured Clarice Young and Roberts. Again, the dancers were dwarfed, but this time by the rousing words of Martin Luther King, Jr. A sense of journey, struggle, mourning, and hope comes through in this excerpt. The dancers, wearing all black, act as a sort of Greek chorus, move to King’s words and later to the music of Bobby McFerrin, silently articulating an emotional roller coaster. It seems as if they are somehow trapped in the words and music and yet are bringing history to the forefront for reconsideration.

Moran and The Bandwagon and the dancers finally joined on stage to collaborate in The Subtle One. Here, the dancers wear long white roomy tops reminiscent of the robes of angels. Their movement is initially quite slow, as if stuck in quicksand. Arms are outstretched as they balance on one foot. Not infrequently, heads are titled toward heaven. Eventually, the dancing picks up speed and, like rotating wheels on a train, the dancers arms begin to chug. If The Subtle One were a battle between the music and the dancing, it’s the music that prevails. The dancing became rather frenetic and sloppy in the end, while the music remained stunningly cool throughout.