by Allan Ulrich

With the Berkeley debut of New York-based Reggie Wilson / Fist and Heel Performance Group on September 23 at Zellerbach Hall, Cal Performances at the University of California launched Joining Generations, an ambitious, four-part survey of African American choreography. The California premiere of Wilson’s 2013 Moses(es) inaugurated the project in arresting, if not entirely successful fashion. However, it was past time to engage the Brooklyn-based dancemaker, whose Bay Area debut seven years ago was memorable.

The event epitomized Berkeley RADICAL, a new style in arts presentation by Northern California’s most formidable impresario. Most visiting dance companies, orchestras or theatre troupes are now asked to give Berkeley residencies. They can include onstage interviews, panels, master classes, public rehearsals or community dance classes, most of them free. In November, Nicolas Blanc of Joffrey Ballet created a Cal Performances-commissioned work, while the public looked on through these ancillary events, which recalled the legendary Joffrey residencies here in the 1960s.

So far, everyone seems happy with Berkeley RADICAL and that includes Cal Performances associate director Rob Bailis. He doesn’t deny that the series has stimulated interest among potential ticket buyers. Drafting university faculty to participate is a savvy move; Bailis notes that “we live in an information age, people are seeking access.” Bailis doesn’t say so, but reaching out to audiences dispels the notion that the performing arts are an elitist diversion.

No doubt Joining Generations was, in part, designed to attract an African American crowd who customarily turns up only for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who bring the series’ final show in the spring. Indeed, they came for Wilson, as well, while the second offering, Camille A. Brown and Dancers’ BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play sold out.

In Moses(es), Wilson is thinking on a grand scale. The unusual spelling of the title suggests, as does novelist Zora Neale Hurston, who inspired the piece, that there is more than one religion fostering its own Moses legend. The choreography seems to investigate several versions of the story.

Wilson in white is always hovering on the periphery, seemingly willing his seven dancers to perform. The movement is heavy with group unisons at the start, but gradually encompasses a multiplicity of style. The weighted manner and deep pliés of West African dance stand out, but the attack seems lighter than usual. Just when you think you have had enough, Wilson will shuffle his dancers like playing cards. In a series of solos, stylistic oddities prevail: the men’s lanky extensions suggest a squad of Broadway hoofers.

Not strictly a narrative, the piece comes with terrific music by Louis Armstrong, the Klezmatics and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Wilson uses Wade in the Water in a very different way from Ailey in his classic Revelations. The second part conjures a more tribal feeling. I loved the moment when the sound of the shofar (an ancient horn instrument) generates celestial light, which turns out to be a cut-glass ballroom globe. This is Wilson’s only full-evening opus to date, and the structure is uncertain. Nevertheless, the dancing, particularly by Rhetta Aleong, combined muscularity and delicacy.

There were no reservations about BLACK GIRL, which marked dancer-choreographer Brown’s Cal Performance bow December 8 in the more intimate Zellerbach Playhouse. What I experienced there was 50 minutes of pure dance heaven, and the joint just rocked as the five dancers and onstage jazz combo reveled in the rites and rituals of urban African American women in that stage of life between childhood and maturity. To understand a culture, Brown seems to say, observe how the members of that culture dance. That’s all one needs.

The tone is remarkably playful and mildly competitive, yet you constantly sense the bonds that unite these women. Their world is an inner city playground, set with elevated risers. Brown adds the final touch to Elizabeth C. Nelson’s décor by adding her own contribution to the dominant background board, festooned with chalked graffiti; she then launches a solo that begins with furious isolated arms. That energy travels down to the feet and generates a rhythmically riveting solo; it’s a genuine accomplishment when you realize they are all wearing sneakers. Joining Brown onstage, sassy Catherine Foster lays down a more graduated rhythm and the pair generate a striking contrapuntal structure, abetted by piano and guitar backup.

Brown has infused the choreographic structure with an array of children’s street games like hopscotch, double Dutch, red light/green light and Marco Polo. These are carefully interwoven into the texture, yet the feeling of improvisation is bracing. In time, Mayte Natalio, Beatrice Capote and Kendra “Vie Boheme” Dennard dance on, and relationships metamorphose from chummy to something more. Dennard’s spidery extension lingers in the memory.

So does BLACK GIRL. Brown should be better known. She certainly merits a
return visit.


Beatrice Capote and Fana Fraser in Camille A. Brown and Dancers’ BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play
Photo: Christopher Duggan