Choreographer-dance Gesel Mason says she doesn’t like labels or being placed in a box.
Thus, when she set out to explore “black dance,” she expected she’d collide with stereotypes. Yet rather, as was seen in “No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers” on Saturday night at the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany, Mason expressed that “black dance” is elusive. It’s not one thing. The body of work by black choreographers, like all dance, is based on the artist’s experience.
She set that concept up at the top of the mainly solo program with her “How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert or What in the Hell Are They Doing on Stage.” Erinn Liebhard narrated Mason’s amusing solo. As Liebhard explained that modern dance could be everything from fast and slow, high and low, tense and loose, Mason illustrated by slipping with surprising ease into a series of micro-dances that kept pace with Liebhard’s laundry list.
With the audience ready to expect the unexpected, a screen descended onto which a video of Mason and the various choreographers she worked with was projected. She talked about her decade-long exploration of the topic of dance by black artists. From there, Mason presented works by three well-established choreographers: contemporary dance’s Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, traditional modern’s Donald McKayle and hip-hop’s Rennie Harris. While all quite different, each piece made an impact, demonstrating Mason’s point that “black dance” embraces the human experience (just as all good art should). She also showed the progression from the narrative style of McKayle to the more abstract approach of younger artists like Zollar and Harris.
McKayle’s work from 1948, “Saturday’s Child,” was based on a poem of the same name by Countee Cullen. In it, Mason depicted a downtrodden beggar. Twisted and stumbling, Mason inched across the stage as the poem related a life of pain and poverty. At one point, she cradled her leg like a baby as the poem recalled her mother’s death. It was a heartbreaker.
Mason was most committed to Zollar’s “Bent” and Harris’ “You Are Why!” In “Bent,” to music by George Clinton, Mason appeared as an incarnate of Jimi Hendrix in her multi-color top and shredded bells. She danced loosely and seemingly unconsciously to the guitar licks, and then zeroed her focus onto a finger she arched over her head. Throughout, Mason radiated intensity, lost in her moment.
Harris’ “You Are Why!” perked up the evening with the fancy and fleet footwork of house dance. Mason was joined by dancers Liebhard and Mecca Madyun in what started off as joyous, synchronized dance to an Afro mix by Kuba. As the two left the stage, “You Are Why!” took a somber turn, reflecting how all was not well, but Mason plowed through sorrow to reach a place of calm.
Mason ended her evening with “No Less Black,” a work that disputed stereotypes. With Madyun reading a poem that named well-known African-Americans, Mason sat with her back to the audience, opening her arms as if to say she was embracing it all.
While each individual work was terrific, the overarching theme was the most memorable. Mainly, Mason emphasized the lines of race are blurry. Our society is moving toward “No Boundaries.” And that’s a good thing.