Written by Steve Ha
In an evening of intensity, rawness, and impromptu beauty, Spectrum Dance Theater’s newest work, The Mother of Us All, is a crown jewel of provocative and theatrical contemporary dance. The audience is invited not to merely view, but to experience Artistic Director Donald Byrd’s vision of a complex, but more importantly, potent Africa. Seating the audience on three sides of the stage invigorates the work with unique perspectives and multidimensional textures that breathe life into the choreography, transforming it from prescribed body movements into manifestations of strife, hope, and the vitality of a continent.
While The Mother of Us All contains a small amount of culturally informed themes in terms of movement and music (highlighted by musician Kane Mathis’s playing of the kora, a traditional West African instrument), it is not a dance that seeks to inoculate the audience with a souvenir of traditional imagery. Instead it challenges them to consider a reality that exists beyond conventional understanding. This is first made evident in the opening minutes, where individual dancers sleekly dressed in simple gray garb, rise out of a trap door and take to the stage in succinct, forceful phrases of movement. The dancing is both angular and balletic, and amidst the gathering storm each dancer recites names of African countries, calling attention to individual voices as independent nations that are lost when a society easily accepts generalizations. The effect is intentionally overwhelming and draws attention not to any specific performer but requires a step back in order to see a holistic picture.
There are several sections to the piece, each a representation of something specific (whether it be AIDS, politics, a significant historical figure, etc.), and while they maintain distinct qualities, Byrd cleverly blurs the boundaries between them. Though he offers no resolution to any of the complex challenges within the continent, relating them to one another underscores the greater good of trying; resolving one would have a profound effect on the others. Indeed, that is where rays of hope emerge from the melee, through rare moments of unison between two dancers or collaborative duets that have two dancers engaging in acrobatic lifts, sharing space between them in sinuous waves of the spine and magnificent, long lines. However, the way in which Byrd uses classical ballet lines and steps has less concern for prevailing ideas of what is beautiful and every intention of using pure movement as a language. A partnered promenade with the leg extended high into infinity has not the romantic effect of a ballerina in a music box, but a mystifying and almost eerie quality. In that sense, The Mother of Us All does not strike one as a dance of expression but rather the only means through which to communicate the soul of Byrd’s ideas. It’s virtually impossible to imagine Byrd’s work brought to life in any other way.
The Mother of Us Allis just over an hour long, and is far vaster than time and space will allow—as an escape from one reality into another. The dancers exhibit a mastery of technique that is both thrilling and at times irrelevant, as many impressive things take place throughout, such as a trio of women performing some of the most athletic dancing one could ever see, while somehow managing to grip a microphone and recite lengthy monologues. However (and most importantly), The Mother of Us All is incredibly successful in presenting a great deal of information that Byrd himself hopes constructs an image of a “dynamic” Africa. One more opportunity remains to see it at The Moore Theatre on Saturday, March 5th at 8pm, with a post-performance question and answer session. Tickets can be purchased by phone (877.784.4849) or online at: http://stgpresents.org/
For more information about Spectrum Dance Theater, please visit www.spectrumdance.org.