February 2-5, 1995 Reviewed by Ann Murphy
Over the years I've wrestled with the clinking, clanking title of Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, the name of the seven-year-old festival that runs at Theater Artaud almost every winter. (This was actually the fifth one.) While it's a title that does get truncated to Black Choreographers Moving or, for the real insider, BCM, there's something important about the whole thing, the way it takes commitment to say and the way it makes you think, like the title of Ntozake Shange's play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. It's a name that slyly captures the feel of young, smart, gifted, and black choreographers marching bravely forward to meet the strange new world that seems to lie ahead.
Artaud's recent directors are unstoppable optimists who believe that art can act as a mirror to society, with its hornet's nest of racism, homophobia, and class prejudice, as well as open a window on the individual soul. And so on the one hand the festival asserts that issues of race can't be sanitized or made irrelevant because Art is some genteel creature atop a fabled Olympus too lofty for the messy, temporal aspects of everyday life. On the other hand, Black Choreographers Moving claims with equal rightness that race does not necessarily define the artist and the art, however inescapable society's prejudice.
This year all the participants, from Joanna Haigood to Reginald Ray-Savage's Savage Dance Company, strove for some kind of balance, whether in the demands of dance and drama, rage and peace, or in social reality and the individual life. As a whole, the festival succeeded in fits and starts.
The artist who best found his balance--a taut, energetic bond between the formal parameters of dance and the rhythm of contemporary life--was twenty-seven-year-old Robert Henry Johnson, whose own dancing is as light and insouciant as an angel and as sassy as a bad boy. Not many years ago this San Francisco Ballet-trained dancer churned out work that was still full of the sandbox. Now his choreography is as joyous and ebullient as a Roman fountain and is beginning to have real, formal dimension. Johnson seems to put everything he sees into his choreographic basket--Mark Morris, Alonzo King, Twyla Tharp, Donald Byrd, and hip-hop--throbbingly arranges it all to Prince in The Learning Ground, and comes out with work that is organically ingenious …