Black Choreographers Festival, SF

Written by:
Joanna G. Harris
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A scene from Naomi Washington and Zak Diouf’s “Serer Suite”
Photo courtesy of Wanda Sabir, Interchange

Black Choreographers Festival

Weekend 1: Feb. 11-13, 2011, Laney College, Oakland
Weekend 2: Feb. 17-20, 2011, ODC Theater, San Francisco
Weekend 3: Feb. 25-27, 2011, Dance Mission Theater, San Francisco

The Black Choreographers Festival: Here and Now brings a wide range of offerings from the wide and varied community. Producers Kendra Kimbrough Barnes and Laura Elaine Ellis have worked hard to present new works, dances by young people and groups and visits from some distinguished artists.

The opening night program started with a young man’s tap dance, “Manhattan,” a premiere well-executed with lively slides and intricate rhythms. Tyler Knowlin, wearing wonderful green tap shoes, performed well. As a newcomer, he needs to lift his shy head and give us some personal pizzazz.

Three other solos were performed: two by Mahealani Uchiyama and one by Raissa Simpson. Uchiyama is tall, elegant and accomplished in the hand language of Hawaiian dance. Her first piece, “Full Moon Sister,” was charming but lacked the dynamic necessary to fill the stage. The same was true for her second piece, “Ke Anu O Waimea?” Although the program notes gave us descriptions of the scenes depicted, Uchiyama did not convey them through her restrained movement style.

Raissa Simpson (see video below), the other soloist on the program, is a ball of fire. In “Mixed Messages” an “experiment in phrasing mixed races,” Simpson jumped, ran and was extremely lively, using movement from African-American and modern dance sources. It would be more effective if those phrases were shaped into choreographic cohesion so the audience could perceive structure.

The two group pieces were more effective. “Niu Aye” by Paco Gomes and his group to music by Gomes and Aye, depicted an Afro-Brazilian legend and controversy surrounding the origins of the god Omolu. Wearing marvelous costumes, the dramatically wrapped figures shouted and sang. “Niu Aye” was a complex series of well-executed incidents. Without being “inside” the story, however, it was not always easy to follow the events and the birth/death cycle.

The evening concluded with “Serer Suite” by Naomi Washington and Zak Diouf of Diamano Coura West African Dance Company. Accompanied by drums and singers, the cast of 11 portrayed fishermen and boatbuilders who live along the coast of Senegal and Gambia. This piece brings to life the men’s lives and the elegance and beauty of the women at a formal gathering or fanning millet during the harvest. The mimetic rowing of the two men and the graceful use of baskets by the women made this the most effective and joyous of the Black Choreographers Festival at its first performance.

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