Co-founder and Artistic Director Deborah Vaughan has led the Oakland based Dimensions Dance Theater for 40 years. I can remember well the early years under the mentorship of Ruth Beckford, whose teaching at the Oakland Recreation Department made it possible for Deborah and many others to develop their skills as dancers, choreographers, teachers and leaders in the African American community. In the program, Deborah thanks Beckford and notes her “link to the Katherine Dunham legacy.”
Dimensions’ 40th Anniversary show gave us all thrilling experiences in the range of creativity and dedication it has developed. For me, it was particularly gratifying to see “old-timers” such as Latanya d. Tigner, Vaughan’s longtime colleague, and my dear friend Laura Elaine Ellis dancing in works new and old.
After an exciting band procession by the Brass Boppers & Company, the performance began with a 1973 excerpt by Elendar Barnes, “My People,” to music by Hubert Laws and poetry of Langston Hughes.
This work led off a “retrospective medley,” ten works dating from then to Vaughan’s 2011 “Catalyst.” All were wonderfully performed and beautifully costumed, choreographed for the company by Garth Fagan and danced solo by associate artist Erik Lee. It is astonishing to see how marvelously this company accomplishes a range of dance traditions, from modern dance through several different African and Haitian styles. The retrospective also included and interlude by master drummers, Mohamad Kouyate, Djems Dorsainvil and James Rudisill.
And that was not all. After a pause, Vaughan, in collaboration with choreographers Latanya d. Tigner, Jose “Cheo” Rojas and Isaura Oliveira presented the major work of the evening, “Rhythm of Life/Down the Congo Line.” She notes that after a 2010 visit to the Republic of Congo she built this work “tracing Congo roots from the continent to Brazil, Cuba, New Orleans and the Bay Area to make you feel the Congo’s rich legacy.” Indeed we did. From the New Orleans funeral ritual, to the island of Cuba, to ecstasy of Brazil and Carnivali, the dancers, vocals, songs, performance and costumes all celebrated the diversity and unified passions of these artists and these varied heritages.
Members of the Dimensions Dance Theater include Laura Elaine Ellis, Latanya d. Tigner, Denice Simpson, Valrie Sanders, Elize Selvarajah, Dorcas Mba, Lavinia Mitchell, Phylicia Stroud, Chelsea Morris and associate artists Justin Sherman, Noah James, Erik Lee and Roquisha Townsend. Marvin White, author, offered his poetry; vocals were by Tossie Long and Suklary Valverde; costumes by the choreographers and Dorcas Mba.
All are to be congratulated on this special evening. As a long time friend of the company, I would appreciate seeing each part of this program on its own at others times. “Rhythm of Life/Down the Congo Line” and “Vukana” need to be seen again and again.