Dance Place at the Hartke Theatre, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC; May 29, 2014
If you don’t think of stepping as an art form, then you haven’t seen the work of Washington, DC’s largest African-American arts organization, Step Afrika!, which will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary season. Led by founder and executive director C. Brian Williams and artistic director/choreographer Jakari Sherman, the ten dancers of Step Afrika! expertly showed off the range of this unique American art form in a performance with an environmental theme and catchy title, “Green is the New Black.” The performance was green, such that there were no paper programs handed out. Instead, in my case, at least, a program and press kit were sent to my email address – a practice I’d love dance companies everywhere to adopt! Exemplifying another green aspect of the performance, the screen onto which images were projected was made from discarded white shirts sewn together, and it made a strikingly beautiful backdrop.
The first phase of “Green is the New Black,” a multiyear project, is called “n” (the nth power). The dancers explored power in all its forms, from electricity to the power of ideas and even the abuse of power. In their exploration, the dancers used not only stepping, but contemporary and African dance to convey their messages. Much of the tone was serious, and the dancers at times moved extremely slowly, in an almost antithesis of step-dance. I suspect there may have a few folks in the audience, including myself, who hungered for a more typically fun and fast-paced style of stepping. The curtain call, thankfully, featured a traditional, high energy stepping routine to which the audience enthusiastically responded. Among many esteemed patrons at the opening night performance was Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who clapped and swayed along with everyone else.
Sherman definitely excelled at presenting something different with his latest choreography. The dancing soared far beyond what one would see in a college stepping competition. The work began with a blend of spiritual and eerie music. Dancers with headdresses circled up and joyously recalled a simpler time when humans shared a greater connection to the earth. A dancer taking the role of “Electrification” spouted poetry about how being green isn’t really so new. Surely your grandmother urged you not to throw anything away, to fix what you broke, she mused.
In a particularly poignant section, a lone female dancer, clad in fishnet-like tatters that if you looked closely incorporated the hashtag symbol (excellent costume design by Katie Touart), mournfully walked among discarded trash. As she approached other dancers, they ignored her. Their eyes were glued to their glowing cell phones. I’ve never seen a chorus of fingers swiping at tiny individual screens look more lovely or haunting. Sadly, the lonely dancer’s desperate pleas about caring for our environment (recycle, reuse, repurpose) were not heard by those with whom she shared the stage, but her message to the audience was loud and clear.
Harvesting the power of dance is more than a cool idea, and in “Green is the New Black,” I witnessed this idea in action. Ingeniously, during parts of the performance the strength of the dancers’ percussive steps powered special lights, which lit up as their feet struck the floor of an elevated platform, while drum beats also caused certain lights to blaze in rhythm. Matthew McCormack, an MFA student at Towson University, took a bow at the conclusion of the evening for this important contribution. I’m eager to see where his research concerning human-generated power and immersive art can take the dance world.
Keeping in mind that “Green is the New Black,” is an ongoing 3-year project, I’d encourage Sherman, in coordination with McCormack, to push ahead with further experimentation regarding the use of kinetics to produce power. This was one of the most fascinating parts of the performance. Other bits seemed to veer off course and seemed to fit less well with the overall theme (singing about money, power, and respect, for example, dealt with the impact of power in society, but the connection to the green theme was a little lost on me). I very much appreciated the amazing artistry of the performers and the compelling concepts, though, and I look forward to seeing where “Green is the New Black” ends up.