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TV Review: PBS special explores African dancers' effect

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

By Jane Vranish, Post-Gazette Dance and Music Critic

The African influence on dance is well-documented in tap, modern jazz and social dance. But the beat that found its way across the ocean also has heavily affected modern dance, long acknowledged to be the territory of pioneers like Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis.

"Dance in America" tackles this little-known area, one for which African-American dancers sacrificed much with little acclaim. Their spirit runs true in "Free to Dance," presented at 8 tonight on WQED/WQEX as an installment of the PBS series "Great Performances."

The University of Pittsburgh's Lynne Conner, Ph.D., is one of a long list of dance historians who provide commentary. Conner's area of expertise is based on her book, "Spreading the Gospel of the Modern Dance: Newspaper Dance Criticism in the United States 1850-1935."

"Free to Dance"

When: 8 tonight on WQED/WQEX.



Many artists and companies that Conner and her colleagues discuss will be familiar to local dance audiences because former Pittsburgh Dance Council executive director Carolelinda Dickey was committed to the presentation of African-American dance during her tenure there.

So there are liberal clips of Alvin Ailey and his American Dance Theater, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, along with the choreographers they embraced: Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. "Free to Dance" ends with a collaboration between McKayle and Ronald K. Brown, a rising choreographer who will grace the PDC season next year.

Because dance is such an ephemeral art, so vital one moment and gone the next, the film segments, particularly of the artists' early days, hold a special interest. The first part -- "What Do You Dance?" -- chronicles the difficulties of the "serious" African-American artist.

It sets the stage with a brief history of African dance in America, with the naturalness of "Ring Shout" and the social accent of the "Black Bottom." The program then spends a great deal of time on Edna Guy and letters exchanged between her and St. Denis. As the leader of the Denishawn Dancers in the 1920s, St. Denis was brutally honest with Guy about her chances as a concert dancer. Even though Guy is devoted to St. Denis, she could not secure a place in her own company.

Contemporary re-creations of Guy's dances, along with Helmsley Winfield and Asadata Dafora's scintillating "Ostrich Dance," blend seamlessly with the historic film clips. These concert dancers would convene with a young Katherine Dunham at the 92nd Street Y in 1937. It would be a milestone concert that would bring admirable notices. But the hit of the concert, as "Free to Dance" notes, is a gospel solo by Guy, a sweet ending to a tale of perseverance.

Part 2, "Steps of the Gods," expands upon Dunham's career and her groundbreaking isolation technique. It offers a look at "L'Ag'Ya," based on material from the island of Martinique, as well as "Barrelhouse Blues," a combination of authentic and realistic dance that was called an "incredible vulgarity" by New York Times critic John Martin.

Pearl Primus comes on the scene, with the first real piece of social commentary, "Strange Fruit," which is based on the pain and suffering of a lynching. Seminal works of Ailey, Beatty and McKayle also are addressed.

Ailey also transcends the dance scene into the third section, "Go for What You Know." But he has been well documented in Judith Jamison's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Tribute to Alvin Ailey." More interesting is the diversity of lesser-known African artists: Eleo Pomare, Gus Solomons Jr. and, of course, Bill T. Jones, who was "an artist first who happened to be black."

"Free to Dance" is an all-too-rare and welcome glimpse into an art form and the artists who, sometimes at great cost, contributed so much to the richness and variety of dance expression.

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