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Dance Preview: Pittsburgh Black Theater Dance Ensemble prepares for a rebirth after a 20-year absence

Sunday, July 13, 2003

By Jane Vranish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's not often we get to recapture a dream, especially one that began decades ago.

The next generation of the Pittsburgh Black Theater Dance Ensemble includes Renee Henry, rehearsing in East Liberty. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

Pittsburgh Black Theater Dance Ensemble

Where: Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, East Liberty.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 4 p.m. next Sunday.

Tickets: $12; 412-394-3353.

With the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as role model and inspiration, African Americans plunged full force into the civil rights movement of the 1960s. King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech began as a ripple and grew into a tidal wave, spawning victories for minorities, for women and for others yet to hear the call to battle.

It was a time when black was beautiful and when dreams were bountiful.

In the late '60s, a group of students took over the computer room at the University of Pittsburgh, demanding a course in black studies. What they got was not only an opportunity to investigate their heritage but a whole new means of individual expression, a way to educate and inform a new generation.

To teach black studies, Pitt hired Bob Johnson, a renaissance man from New York City. He would go beyond the classroom to form the Pittsburgh Black Theater Dance Ensemble, and he was at the core of a veritable explosion of African-American art in the city. Among his peers were August Wilson, Rob Penny and Claude Purdy of Black Horizons Theater and Vernell Lillie of Kuntu Repertory Theatre.

But the dream would be short-lived. Johnson struggled to make ends meet, and the dance company folded in 1983. He died in 1986.

His legacy, however, is alive and well, witnessed in the dancers, teachers, doctors and business leaders who had performed as troupe members.

Now, after nearly 20 years of dormancy, the Pittsburgh Black Theater Dance Ensemble is to be reborn next weekend at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater in East Liberty, a tribute to Johnson and his vision.

"Recapturing the dream" is the phrase on the new PBTDE posters that dot the Pittsburgh landscape. "Bob said we must re-identify ourselves, both socially and artistically," says his widow, Stephanie Johnson, who met her husband when she joined the dance group in those heady days of the '70s. "He was a lover of the arts -- music, dance and theater went together."

Her husband also formed Theater Urge, which produced the first performance of Wilson's "Jitney."

Stephanie Johnson watches rehearsals for the resurrected Pittsburgh Black Theater Dance Ensemble. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

By 1979, the Pittsburgh Dance Council, in one of its first moves to build a dance community within the city, included the dramatic resources of Johnson's ensemble, giving it a wider audience.

"He was a fireball," recalls Yolanda Marino, PDC director from 1974 to 1982. "He made his mind up that he was going to do it, and he did it. Under his direction, the company had a vibrant, energetic and soul-searching form of dance."

The Dance Council also held auditions for a women's collective, which became Pittsburgh Dance Alloy. It added the spare intensity of Janet Gillespie and Company. The trio performed under the title Dance Umbrella at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, taking the art form out of the local studios, giving it a modern twist and establishing a diversity that endures today.

"We danced constantly," says Leslie Anderson-Braswell of that time in the early 1980s. She had returned from a stint with the Dance Theatre of Harlem to take over the reins of Johnson's company in 1978, while he remained close at hand as her mentor. "Bob carried himself like a king, but an approachable king. He stayed right with me and made it a magnificent journey."

When Johnson died, the black community gathered for a commemorative ceremony. Wilson sent a poem, titled "For Bob Johnson," with the following passage:

" ... chosen out of the desert pitch of night
the drums
old dry bone rattle drum bone
beat on the ear, the eye point
language of the eye to see>BR>the beginning dancers same as all god
or song."

In the years that passed, so did many local dance organizations. Only Dance Alloy, its name trimmed to fit its sleek new national touring schedule, endured.

But by 2002, there had been another renaissance in Pittsburgh's black arts tradition. The Congolese accent of Umoja African Drum and Dance Ensemble played off the Western African style of Shona Sharif's group. Birdie Nichols held her gospel ground with Glorious Rebirth, and Stacy Walters carried on with the contemporary company Xpressions.

Greer Reid, a former dancer with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, joined the faculty at Pittsburgh's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in 2002. She found herself teaching beside Braswell.

Reid had danced with PBTDE beginning at age 12 under both Johnson and Braswell. It was only natural that the two began reminiscing about "old times." The dream began to take shape once more -- not a new dance group, but the reincarnation of the old.

Ebony Wallace is front and center during rehearsal of the Pittsburgh Black Theater Dance Ensemble. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

"I knew what the company had given me," says Reid. "Now it was time to bring back Bob's vision, bring black dance in the black tradition back to Pittsburgh. A lot of his pieces dealt with the experiences of his time. Those same things are still valid today. They have the same impact."

Reid began scouring the city, hand-picking her ensemble of 20 dancers. With the announcement that PBTDE was reforming, all the pieces of the puzzle about the black experience began to come together.

Local artist Thomas Chatman took on the duties of managing director, along with providing percussion accompaniment. Kim Bears-Bailey came from Philadanco, where she has been an acclaimed principal dancer and now is assistant artistic director. Bears-Bailey agreed not only to teach, but to choreograph a new work, "The Fast and the Furious."

Reid called on her ties with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company to bring friend Terrence Greene, now director of Urban Dance Collective in Cleveland, to choreograph "Faith." Likewise, DCDC principal dancer Daniele Marshall set "Unspoken Truth" on the group.

From New York came Baraka DeSolei, founder of D Underbelly, to oversee the re-creation of Johnson's "Dumbala." The African traditions were completed with a new work, "Sorsonet," by master Guinea dance teacher Mouminatou Camara and master drummer Mamadouba Camara.

Late one recent night, the company was rehearsing at the Dance Alloy's Neighborhood Studio in Friendship. Stephanie Johnson watched them go through their paces, hungry for the movement.

"I saw the spirit of the old company members coming down the floor," she says with a big grin. "It felt good to sit there and remember. But there's a new legacy being built here. They are standing on the shoulders of the elders of this community and taking it to a whole new level."

Jane Vranish can be reached atjvranish@post-gazette.com .

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