Dancers spin, twist, leap and twirl, but their movements represent more than just kinetic energy. Their bodies tell stories. Their gestures hold histories.
In the case of “Momentum,” a new dance concert from the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas, the eclectic group of dances will tell a collection of stories about how African diasporic culture has influenced contemporary dance.
“We say this concert is about the impact of black culture on dance, but it is so many different dance styles that it explodes the notion that there is just one culture,” said Charles O. Anderson, associate professor of dance and co-artistic director of Dance Repertory Theatre.
“Momentum” encompasses wildly divergent choreographic and musical styles as well as themes and topics. Several artists, such as the prominent hip-hop choreographer Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris, will explore contemporary issues. His piece, “Second to Khan,” delves into the rise in mass shootings and police brutality. Other choreographers, such as Gesel Mason, will present more personal and intimate works.
Anderson was inspired to produce “Momentum” by two key moments in dance history that explored the question of what defines “black dance.”
In the early 1930s, Edna Guy and Hemsley Winfield — two pioneering African-American dancers and choreographers — attempted to answer that question by producing the first modern dance concert dedicated to the work of black dancers. Fifty years later, an artist named Ishmael Houston-Jones produced a postmodern performance series called “Parallels” that pushed the boundaries of what were traditionally considered to be African-American dance aesthetics.
These historical engagements motivated Anderson to invite a diverse group of choreographers to create new dances for “Momentum” that would address the influence of African-American and African diasporic culture in a fresh and contemporary way.
Dance styles that spread from western and southern Africa to different parts of the world through the African diaspora have a few key things in common. They tend to be polyrhythmic (more than one rhythm at the same time) and polycentric (movement can be initiated from more than one part of the body).
These characteristics can be found in two of the most popular forms of African-American dance — hip-hop and jazz. But even beyond those styles, “much of what we recognize as American dance has some aspect of African-American or African diasporic culture,” Anderson said.
Though all the works in “Momentum” have some kind of link to African or African-American dance aesthetics, histories or movement forms, don’t expect the pieces to be cohesive. The dances are deliberately diverse, ranging in style from hip-hop to tap, from modern to postmodern, from Afro-contemporary to Indian classical dance.
Some pieces will use distinctively African-American forms of dance, as Dance Repertory Theatre co-director Jeremy Arnold does in his rhythm tap piece set to the music of Bach. And some choreographers will surprise us with unexpected style mash-ups, such as Abby Zbikowski’s piece examining the relationship between formal dance and the punk musical form. In “Walking With Natasha,” Indian classical dance artist Ananya Chatterjea mixes traditional form with contemporary issues as she explores recent racially charged incidents at Baylor University.
Student choreographers will also debut new work in “Momentum.” One of the student pieces, choreographed by Oluwaseun Samuel Olayiwola, will take a unique angle on the concept of blackness.
“I think with Sam’s piece, the audience is going to be intrigued by how rather than dealing with race head on, he is dealing with the color black,” Anderson said. “It already takes us into a new way of seeing the idea and brings us around to fashion.”
Senior dance major Gianina Casale choreographed a work titled “A-peeling,” which she described as inspired by “a desire to exist in my most authentic self despite the external pressures that tell me otherwise.” Casale’s process was highly personal and improvisational, and she asked her fellow student dancers to read, write and improvise while collaborating on the work.
Casale said that “A-peeling” is linked to African-American culture through its use of a blues score. “Just by dancing to this music, we stand on the shoulders of rich African history and culture that inevitably informs and influences the dance,” she said. Blues music, which Casale said was used “to express emotions such as sadness and dejection,” directly influences the movement vocabulary in her piece.
Despite the wide swings in style throughout “Momentum,” Anderson says, “The common thread throughout the concert is, to be blunt, a real sensitivity and care around the concept of blackness and black dance. What I mean by that is that all of them are aware that they are part of a long history and lineage.”
Anderson himself developed a new piece for the event called “(Re)current Unrest pt. 2: In D’Nile.” The piece, which is an extension of a piece he debuted last year, was inspired by his fixation on several compositions by musician Steve Reich as well as by his interest in our current political climate and the idea of civil unrest. The dance, which features a large cast and an immersive, multimedia component, “has moved more into ideas around citizenship and personhood,” Anderson said.
For Austin audiences, “Momentum” represents a unique chance to witness the vast contributions that African and African-American cultures have made on contemporary dance.
“It’s bringing to the Austin community the opportunity to literally consider the questions, ‘What is black dance? How does it fit into what I consider to be American modern dance?’” Anderson said.
“Being in Austin,” he continued, “I see very little work by African-American choreographers, so this is an opportunity to consider how can we and how do we stand on the shoulders of African-American culture here?”
When: Various times Feb. 15-26
Where: Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, UT Department of Theatre and Dance, 300 E. 23rd St.
Information: 512-471-5793, theatredance.utexas.edu