Black choreographers fest kicks off powerfully

Taking inspiration from James Baldwin, who said, “I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all,” the 15th annual Black Choreographers Festival is underway.

The month-long event directed by Laura Elaine Ellis and Kendra Kimbrough Barnes opened over the weekend at Dance Mission theater in The City with an energized bill featuring dances by local veterans Byb Chanel Bibene, Gregory Dawson, Joanna Haigood, Antoine Hunter, Robert Henry Johnson and Raissa Simpson — many of whom have worked together through the decades.

The breadth of the show indeed reflected Baldwin’s statement; a case likely to continue in additional performances and new programs at SAFEhouse Arts and Laney College in Oakland.

Saturday’s show began with the romantic and athletic, jeans-clad Delvis Frinon and Helen Wicks (and a large wooden chair) in the lovely, breathtaking opening duet from Haigood’s 2004 “The View from Here.” Set to classical music, it was the evening’s warmest, most charming piece, even offering a happy ending.

The equally strong Marissa Head and Zahna Simon, in leotards and toe shoes, were en pointe, accompanied by a tense jazz saxophone-and-drum score in the urgent “Scream My Language,” a piece by Hunter, a deaf artist seemingly channeling his frustrations and challenges in the effective dance.

Harder to read but no less interesting was Dawson’s dramatic premiere “Champions and lovers,” featuring six dancers in flesh-toned bodysuits, looking nude. Christopher Scarver’s percussive, sometimes droning and menacing electronic score kept the proceedings on the cool side, offsetting the performers’ sculptural movements – in solos, pairs, or unison, throughout the piece, which ended in quiet darkness.

In contrast, Bibene’s 2019 “350 & Million Moving Targets” had a clear point: To educate about the global crisis of mass displacement, of people forced to leave their homes due to war and conflict, only to face equally grim situations.

More than a dozen performers acted out the distress, aided by props (big sheets of plastic represented the harsh sea, filled with refugees fleeing for their lives), photos and video. Bibene himself performed the piece’s most intricate choreography.

In his solo premiere “The Gospel According to Roland Brown III,” Johnson showed off comedy rather than dance skills; the funny piece, in which he reverted to being a child talking about his grandma and his time at Catholic school when he painted a black Jesus, was more a monologue with some movement than a true dance.

An ensemble of five (dressed in black) appeared in Simpson’s 2018 “Codelining,” another work set to an electronic score and video backdrop by daevron. The dancers were strong; however, the piece’s exploration of “redlining, gentrification, the digital divide and real or perceived barriers between artists, technologists and communities of color” wasn’t obvious upon first viewing.

Weekends two, three and four offer dances by more than a dozen different choreographers.


Black Choreographers Festival: Here and Now
Where: Dance Mission Theater, 3316 24th St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23-24
Tickets: $10 to $25
Note: Performances also are at 7:30 p.m. March 2-3 at SAFEhouse Arts at 145 Eddy St., S.F.; and 7:30 p.m. March 9-10 at Laney College Theater, 900 Fallon St., Oakland.

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