Harlem Stage quietly wrapped up the 10th anniversary of its E-Moves dance series over the weekend. Don’t be fooled by the rather turgid title of the Friday evening program, “Legends and Legacies,” at the handsome Gatehouse theater. Featuring three renowned female artists with younger women they have inspired, the program was as low-key as it was affecting.
Virginia Johnson’s “Legacy Interrupted” was, in equal measures, poignant and hopeful. Ms. Johnson, a Dance Theater of Harlem luminary, was joined by two fellow alumni, Paunika Jones and Tanya Wideman-Davis (who also choreographed), and Ashley Murphy, a member of the company’s Dancing Through Barriers ensemble.
Dancing Through Barriers is now the closest thing the financially troubled Dance Theater of Harlem has to a company: hence the work’s title and the poignancy. But this ensemble is touring extensively, and Ms. Johnson has just been named to succeed the company’s founding artistic director, Arthur Mitchell. Hope springs eternal for this 40-year-old troupe, which offered just that to black classical dancers at a time when few other opportunities existed. (Too few still do.)
“What is left when the shoes are off and the waist thick?” Ms. Johnson asked in a resonant voice-over. Plenty, it seems. While the younger dancers offered snippets of the company’s signature “Firebird” ballet and Ms. Wideman-Davis attacked with her dazzlingly fierce extensions, Ms. Johnson nonetheless held the stage with her beautifully expressive arms and serenely commanding presence.
As the saying goes, flaunt what you’ve got left. Joan Myers Brown, who founded Philadanco in 1970, did the same in “Echoes.” Choreographed in collaboration with Christopher Huggins, this brief but feisty exercise in shimmying and attitude was performed with Kim Bears-Bailey, Philadanco’s assistant artistic director. Backed by recordings of Nina Simone and wearing slinky black dresses that showed off plenty of leg, Ms. Myers Brown and Ms. Bears-Bailey offered a deliciously arch interlude.
“A Hidden Duet” was another matter entirely. A powerhouse collaboration between the founder of Urban Bush Women, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and her associate artistic director, Nora Chipaumire, it unfolded like an intimate and joyous protest song.
Spoken banter bloomed into a full-bodied, complexly rhythmic give and take, the women using breath, gesture and rippling undulations of energy to tell their intertwined stories. They began and ended holding hands. The word for this isn’t anything as fancy as legacy or legend; it’s family.
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