What is this thing called dance?
Choreographer Jamal Jackson is asking that question, wondering where his dance fits into the world of this elusive art.
But the dance artist need not fret nor over intellectualize about his identity. He, like a wise choreographer, draws from the best of many styles to find his voice. And he has clearly demonstrated he is not rigidly wed to any with his Jamal Jackson Dance Company’s “Footprints from My Head’s Rhythm.”
The work, shown on Sunday afternoon at PS/21, is a suite of dances that well represents his unique style — a blend of street and Lester Horton modern guided by a firm foothold in African (Malian) dance. The result is a fluid and theatrical groove that carries its audience along Jackson’s searching journey.
Jackson’s questioning of his place reveals itself in the first dance – “Downtown to Dogon.” As he sits in a chair, he muses about his styles and how they translate into the body of a dancer. The focused and fierce Dana Thomas, in a colorful Mali grass skirt, responds to Jackson’s stream-of-conscious debate — should he be more hip/street, more cool downtown New York or more blatantly African? She moves, occasionally tossing off a layer of clothing, to express every whim he utters. She is an amazing dancer for her range, strength and stage charisma. Actually, whatever Jackson wants to choreograph, it is certain to take a meaningful shape with Thomas.
She also distinguishes herself in “Next Time” and Mile 21.” In “Next Time,” paired with the long and gorgeous Tiffani Harris as the repentant one, Thomas stands out with the other churchgoers, dancing to Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World.” Their duet, which starts off the piece, is like a call and response with Thomas tracking close behind Harris who reaches out, runs and falls in her search for redemption.
The tone shifts dramatically with the lively rhythms of Frances Bebey’s music. Everyone, including Sean Anthony Thomas in a preacher’s robe, flaunts joy in the good book and salvation.
“Mile 21” is an inner dialogue for three runners. Thomas, along with the lithe Gabrielle Wilson and the lush Karina Frenicola-Ikezoe, concentrate on their stride. Yet they break off the pack to show, in solos, what goes on in the racing mind of an athlete in the zone. Here, Jackson’s blend of styles is the most seamless, and, as a result, the most effective.
The program also includes “Space Coding,” a work for five, in which the dancers, in street clothes, speak in a modern vernacular. This dance contrasts with “Supplant,” a purely African dance-inspired, exuberant work to live drumming by Puto Prata.
Jackson is a regular at PS/21. And as part of his annual visit, he conducts dance workshops. His students, along with the Jackson’s drummers, perform a jubilant African spectacle that is learned in a week. Titled “Dansa,” the piece has everyone marveling about these young people’s abilities. But more importantly, it exemplifies Jackson’s generosity. While Jackson might question his place, everyone at PS/21 knows that he will always have a place on its stage.