Jacob Lawrence's paintings...ith their brilliant colors; sharp, clear shapes; and free and dashing lines — convey a sense of...
Jacob Lawrence’s paintings — with their brilliant colors; sharp, clear shapes; and free and dashing lines — convey a sense of exuberant joy. At the same time, they illustrate the sometimes dark and painful events of African-American history. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s tribute to Lawrence, presented at UW this weekend, only rarely managed to convey the brilliance and vividness of the artist.
The problem was not in the dancing. The powerful and athletic DCDC dancers were quite often breathtaking, leaping as if the stage were a trampoline, performing full-speed street moves. And individually, each of the four works comprising the piece (choreographed by Donald Byrd, Rennie Harris, Reggie Wilson and DCDC’s Kevin Ward) were full of inventive energy.
The program, however, felt repetitious and disjointed, in part, because each work covered some of the same ground, attempting to touch on the vast subject matter of Lawrence’s work. And the scenic design and lighting were intrusive.
Suspended screens at various angles connected by ropes successfully suggested the geometries of Lawrence’s work; however, James Clotfelter’s lights and sets, and Tobin Rothlein’s videos and projections, too often left the dancers in the dark. They created a sense of underwater murkiness, like an ultrasound image, very much at odds with Lawrence’s bright clarity.
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Costumes by Omotayo “Wumni” Olaiya referred to different period styles from Lawrence’s long career spanning 1970 to 2000 — although it was difficult to place the distracting short, hooped skirts.
The evening opened with Byrd’s “J. Lawrence Paint (Harriet Tubman Remix)” set to a range of music, from Sarah Vaughan’s haunting and horrifying rendition of “Strange Fruit” to Mondo Grosso. Byrd “froze” the dancers in mid-walk to punctuate his furious, fast-paced moves, successfully suggesting both the historic breadth and stillness of Lawrence’s images.
Ward’s “Continuing Education,” set to a John Adams score, was inspired by Lawrence’s paintings of the 1960s. The finale consisted of a dancer stripping and having his body painted and then used to make a print on a white sheet.
Thursday night, Meany Theater, Seattle
Wilson’s “We ain’t goin’ home but we finna to get the hell up outta here” started with traditional African music and moved on to jazz and club. Here big attitudes, and a sense of freedom and play, showed off the dancers’ personalities.
“color-ography, n. The Dances of Jacob Lawrence” Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Meany Theater, University of Washington, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, $39; 206-543-4880 or www.uwworldseries.org.
The last piece on the program, Harris’ “Jacob’s Ladder,” set to music by Zapp Mama, most successfully caught the exuberant spirit of Lawrence’s style. His hip-hop moves, with their African dance references, were full of pure freedom and life. The scenic elements worked with him here, for a change. Projections of Lawrence’s paintings complemented the costumes — pants and suspenders for both men and women.
Although someone knowing Lawrence’s work ahead of time might come away disappointed by this piece, if it sends people to look more closely at these wonderful paintings (a number of which are on view at the remodeled Seattle Art Museum), it will further its function as a tribute.
Mary Murfin Bayley: firstname.lastname@example.org