Dayton Contemporary Dance Company
8 p.m. Feb 20. Rialto Center for the Arts, 80 Forsyth St. N.W. $32-$56 404-413-9849, www.rialtocenter.org.
By Pierre Ruhe
Five years ago, the prestigious Dayton Contemporary Dance Company commissioned four choreographers to turn the brilliantly colored, emotion-charged paintings of Jacob Lawrence into dance.
Now, for the first time since the premiere run of the project called “Color-ography, n. the dances of Jacob Lawrence,” the Ohio company — known as DCDC — will gather them together on stage Saturday at the Rialto Center for the Arts.
The Harlem-raised painter, who described himself as a “dynamic cubist,” remains among the most recognized of American artists.
Lawrence’s canvases, for much of his career, captured the black experience.
“Considering the violence and pathos of so much of his subject matter — prisons, deserted villages, city slums, race riots, labor camps — his images are restrained, and all the more piercing for their lack of bombast,” wrote art critic Robert Hughes in the book “American Visions.”
Hughes also wrote, “When [Lawrence] painted a lynching, for instance, he left out the dangling body and the jeering crowd: there is only bare earth, a branch, an empty noose, and the huddled lump of a grieving woman.”
This “abstraction of the specific — elevating historical events into cultural symbols,” says DCDC Artistic Director Debbie Blunden-Diggs, “is what gives energy to the dancers and what inspired the four choreographers.”
In Atlanta, Donald Byrd might be best known as the choreographer of “The Color Purple,” which premiered at the Alliance Theatre in 2004 and went on to Broadway.
For the DCDC project, Byrd created “JLawrence Paint (Harriet Tubman Remix),” based on Lawrence’s “Migration Series.” These paintings depict the mass flight of blacks after World War I, from the medieval culture of the Deep South to the harsh modernism of the industrial north.
At 30 minutes and for 13 dancers, Byrd’s “Remix” is “the most recognizably literal in capturing a painting as a movement piece,” says Blunden-Giggs.
Rennie Harris’ “Jacob’s Ladder” is based on pictures of urban life.
It’s in a loosely hip-hop style of dance — pushing the movement vocabulary of DCDC, which is not a hip-hop company.
In “Jacob’s Ladder,” Harris says he “hoped to convey Jacob Lawrence’s inspiration for life, his understanding of spirit and his freedom of voice, mind and body.”
Reggie Wilson’s “We Ain’t Goin’ Home But We Finna to Get the Hell Outta Here” is partly improvised, thus made more personal for the eight dancers.
The fourth piece in the “Color-ography” quartet, Kevin Ward’s “Continuing Education,” is the only one not included in this week’s Atlanta performance.
Dayton Contemporary Dance currently boasts more than 100 original African-American choreographed works. It was founded 41 years ago by the mother of the current artistic director.
Jeraldyne Blunden had trained in classical ballet and modern styles with masters from Martha Graham to George Balanchine. Among other honors, Blunden won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994.
After Blunden died in 1999, she was praised by one New York newspaper as “a much loved figure on the national dance scene.”
Her daughter, Blunden-Diggs, joined the company when she was 12, started winning choreography awards when she was 17 and has participated in most DCDC pieces. She took charge of the company three years ago, replacing Kevin Ward.
“‘Color-ography’ was Kevin’s last major project with the company before he retired,” she says, “and it was a brilliant inspiration to put Jacob Lawrence to movement. It’s one of the things we’re most proud of.”
Pierre Ruhe is classical music critic of www.ArtsCriticATL.com.