REVIEW: ‘Mr. TOLE RAncE' brings it all; Paul Taylor brings beautiful dream

Jul. 14, 2013 @ 07:21 PM

The American Dance Festival’s fifth week, July 9-July 13, features the festival debut of Camille A. Brown & Dancers and a return of longtime festival favorite, the Paul Taylor Dance Company.


“Mr. TOL E. RAncE”

July 9-11, Reynolds Industries Theater

Camille A. Brown & Dancers performance of “Mr. TOL E. RAncE” had it all – heart, mind, soul, passion, full-out dancing and introspective solos that bridged the history of minstrel days with present struggles. Add high production values and a gifted cast, who gave it their all, and you have one heck of a show. Pianist Scott Carpenter plays live onstage and delivers a soulful, virtuoso performance. This 50-minute work seems over way too soon.

Film footage from the early minstrel days and posters from TV sit-coms featuring black actors, help set the tone and put this dance theater work in an historical context.

At times, performers generate a whirlwind of non-stop movement that communicates a frenetic compulsion as though on automatic. It also speaks to persistence and courage just to get the job done. At times, dancers wear white gloves to denote servitude to a form of “entertainment” that sometimes required a black performer to use black face paint. And, Brown and her company also sport those minstrels’ big, toothy smiles that do not radiate joy. Instead, fixed in place so wide it seems their faces could crack, these “trauma” smiles signify the pain behind the mask these performers wore.

At times, shadowy images of dancers on the backdrop evoke generations of performers having to step to someone else’s tune.

Solos by Brown and Waldean Nelson really bring home the devastating effect of having to shuffle to someone else’s bidding – whether during minstrel days or in the present dance world – or, at times, in most work situations. Nelson slaps his own face and seems beside himself in frustration and agony. Brown, wearing white gloves, makes big pumping motions from her chest to emphasize heavy heartbeat sounds as the song, “What a Beautiful World,” plays. These solos make it clear that it’s far from a beautiful world for these minstrel performers and anyone in a similar position.           


Paul Taylor Dance Company

July 12-13, Durham Performing Arts Center

Watching this season’s program by the Paul Taylor Dance Company felt like falling into a beautiful dream – with the usual twists and expressive gestures typical of this maestro of American modern dance.

The new work, “Perpetual Dawn,” and the 1997 “Eventide” seem like companion pieces with atmospheric backdrop paintings of rosy, mist-filled landscapes by Santo Loquasto that set the moods of dawn and dusk. Both showcase the ballet-type movements performed with classical grace that Taylor’s known for and also the twists that express his quirky sense of humor.

In “Perpetual Dawn,” a male dancer strikes a dramatic pose, one bent leg, then the serious mood is broken when he kicks his foot twice – which draws ripples of laughter from the audience. Partnering expresses some tender moments but also some unusual moves that require strength and acrobatic skills such as when a dancer does a headstand in her partner’s lap and then flips over his shoulder. In another odd move, a male and female dancer, on their stomachs, stretch their arms out towards each other, join hands and roll over and over across the stage.

“Eventide” has its tender moments, too, but also emphasizes the longing to connect and efforts to do so. A female dancer approaches a male dancer, who kneels hunched over, dejected, and when she gets close, traces semi-circles with her foot then places a hand on the back of his neck. He turns and takes her hand.

The 1981 “Arden Court” ends the program with a dessert of a dance in which the audience is treated by one spectacular leap after another as male dancers soar against a  backdrop of a huge, pink rose. These bare-chested dancers wear tights dappled with spots that make them look a bit like flying insects. There’s also a humorous take on male self-absorption when a woman seeks a man’s attention but he’s in his own world, performing barrel leap and other dance moves, oblivious to her presence. Once again, Taylor’s quirkiness comes through as pairs of male dancers connect with one dancer upside down and then, as one unit, cartwheel into the wings. Also, when male dancers line up, feet and arms spread wide, one dancer’s upside down in a handstand. You can almost hear Taylor chuckling to himself as he came up with these moves.