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Dance: An Impressive Four: McGuire, Brown, Smith, Masilo

By Dawn Lille
ART TIMES Summer 2016

Belinda McGuire (in the piece choreographed by Sharon Moore) Photo by Jubal Battisti
Belinda McGuire (in the piece choreographed by Sharon Moore) Photo by Jubal Battisti

This is about four young dancer/choreographers, all women, each of whom left a lasting impression this past winter. Each has spent a decade or more honing her skills as a performer, exploring her art form and deciding how she wishes to investigate and communicate via dance.

Belinda McGuire is a modern dancer and choreographer from Mississauga, Canada, near Toronto. A graduate of Juilliard, she spent five years dancing with the José Limón Dance Company, two with Doug Varone and one with Gallim. Throughout this time she gave concerts of solo works, many of her own creation, and now she is concentrating on solo performances.

She has formed Belinda McGuire Dance Projects, through which she will also present the work of others. McGuire wishes to promote the research and development of interdisciplinary projects in order to stimulate what she terms the “conscientious capacity” of the public. Her work has been seen across North America and she teaches widely.

Last winter she produced the Ex Cognito Dance Festival in Brooklyn. One of the outstanding events was “Three Muses,” a one woman dance event in which she performed four solos, one of her own and three by others. The title of the program was based on her reversed concept of the term “muse.” Her interest is in what other choreographers can bring out in her, not in how she can inspire them.

McGuire is petite, with a small, etched, heart shaped face and a lithe, muscularly defined body, of which she uses every part. One has no doubt, watching her, that she has control over every movement, proprioceptively and intellectually.

There is an intensity in both her movement and her stillness. Her torso, so capable of expressing different emotions and telling a story, is almost a fifth limb.

She whips in and out of shapes, twisting her body in the air and then landing in sudden quiet, but one never knows when she will erupt into another chain of movements, arms spiking or curling around some part of her body.

The first muse on the program was the Israeli Idan Sharabi, who choreographed Til 120, Again, the remaking of an earlier work to Chopin’s music. Based on the Hebrew birthday blessing to live as long as 120 years, it suggests that every day is a birthday. The piece seemed to send her on a journey of exploration, made use of video and ended in semi nudity. As a viewer, one was left asking where and for what purpose she would go next.

The most taxing work on the program was Anthem for the Living, by Sharon B. Moore, a Canadian choreographer and theater director, who has also worked in film and circus. This piece, to music by Alexander Balanescu, seemed to be a play as well as a dance, with its ropes spread across the stage and the continuous physical demands it made on McGuire.

Her own creation, Fable, to Wagner’s music from Tristan and Isolde, gave the amazing impression that even the ends of her hair were taking instructions from her spine.

The third muse was Doug Varone, whose work, often quick and multi-directional, she knows from her time dancing with his company. His dance and theater credits include many operas, four at the Met. Speaking English, to J.S. Bach’s music as played by Glenn Gould, suggested that it was concerned with how the movement was accomplished, not what it was. Somehow, hearing the iconoclastic Gould perform connected with the idiosyncrasies of McGuire’s pulsating space explorations.

Solo performance is difficult, unforgiving, solitary and exhausting – but there is also freedom and choice. When done so well it is challenging and exhilarating to watch.

Camille A. Brown
Camille A. Brown Photo by Christopher Duggan

Camille A. Brown, a New Yorker, was trained in dance at La Guardia High School of the Performing Arts, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Ailey School. She started as a performer with Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence, A Dance Company and has been a guest artist with Renny Harris Puremovement and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

Brown creates work for her own company, Camille A. Brown and Dancers, but her choreography may be seen on Philadanco, Urban Bush Women and the Ailey company, among others. She has also choreographed for many musicals and it was her work for Cabin In The Sky (Encores at City Center) that reawakened my interest. This famous 1940 all black musical, which took place in the south, was credited to George Balanchine, but it was actually Katherine Dunham, whose company performed in it, who created most of the dances.

Dunham’s work was influenced by Haitian dance. Brown’s approach used her fusion of African, hip-hop, modern, ballet, tap and jazz, into which she often inserts words. In Cabin she incorporated gesture and pedestrian movement into a jazz rhythm that resulted in a smooth torso that told a story in itself.

Her movements are full of high energy and they emerge from all parts of her dancers’ multi faceted bodies She may have gotten her big movements from Ailey and hip-hop from Harris, but the fusion, with its linchpin in African social dance, is hers. Brown feels an artist has to do more than just create art about a social or political issue; it is necessary to dig deeper, to get beneath the mask.

She considers herself a storyteller who connects history with movement, through the eyes of a modern black female, using rhythm as a driving force. She is committed to “engaging audiences and empowering communities through dance and dialogue, with a desire to create safe spaces for growth and learning.” She created Black Girls Spectrum, which uses dance and education to “amplify” the cultural and creative power of black females.

Brown’s choreography often combines politics and humor, one example being Mr. TOL E. RANCE, for which she won a Bessie. Her many other honors include a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship for choreography.

Belinda McGuire (in the piece choreographed by Sharon Moore) Photo by Jubal Battisti
Bobbi Jene Smith photo credit Gagi Dagon

When Bobbi Jene Smith was enticed away from Juilliard to perform with the Batsheva Dance Company in Israel, anyone who had seen her dance knew why. She was a firmly grounded performer who always gave the impression that she knew what every one of her movements meant. Her solid strength and calmly concentrated intensity made her a natural for this fearless ensemble led by Ohad Naharin.

Originally from Centerville, Iowa, Smith trained at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and the North Carolina School of the Arts. When she left Batsheva, after nine and a half years with the group, the Jerusalem Post noted that, in a troupe with no soloists, her riveting presence would be sorely missed. She also staged Naharin’s works on other companies and taught Gaga, his unique approach to movement.

Smith returned home in December 2014, and has embarked upon a new phase in her career. She is presenting her own works in concert, continuing and expanding upon the projects she began and performed in Israel.

Many of us have ideas and emotions smoldering within us; Smith, in mining and sharing these, wishes to eradicate the gap between her life on and off stage. She began this journey with a piece called Arrowed, a combination of performance art and role-play that was the result of her desire to create a dance without movement. Seen in Celia Rowlson-Hall’s film of the same name, it is performed with Shamel Pitts, using a script written by her that deals with personal questions and barbs. She is continuing to develop it as a vehicle with different male partners, females, and even two of each gender. She thinks it may be a life long endeavor.

Harrowing is a duet in seven multi-media scenes. It investigates the relationships we make and leave behind and how the emotions involved connect indelibly to the body. Smith performed an excerpt of this work with David Harvey, to music by Stars of a LId, Jason Molina, Set Fire to Flames and Tim Hecker, at an APAP showing in January. In a program note she talks about the dual meaning of the word ”harrow.” It can be a tool used to turn over and smooth soil or a verb meaning to cause distress.

Dressed in a short, black, backless halter dress, with her long dark hair in a floating pony tail, she faced and came close to Harvey in a quiet, almost motionless embrace that then evolved into short rocking movements in synchrony. They separated, came together, explored a bit on their own and clung to each other. There is nostalgia, romance and vulnerability in this work, which was performed in its entirety at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. It is related to the emotional underpinnings of Arrowed and also to another piece seen in Canada.

A Study in Effort, a collaboration with the violinist Keir GoGwilt, was first presented at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and was seen in June at the Luminato Festival in Toronto. It involves ten tasks that “question physical, moral and emotional effort.” Smith is asking how one receives pleasure from effort – which can involve such diverse things as lifting, pledging or not knowing – and is not necessarily a burden.

She finds a connection between effort and physical desire. Thus, she is continuing the wish, manifested in her other work, to connect her inner world with its physical manifestation, via her body. The girl who went to Israel has returned a woman who has much to explore and share.

Camille A. Brown
Dada Masilo in Swan Lake
(photo: John Hogg)

Dada Masilo grew up in Soweto, the impoverished township near Johannesburg, South Africa. She began dancing at age ten with an all girls group, The Peace Makers, who were influenced by Michael Jackson. In spite of family objections, she subsequently trained at The Dance Factory, graduated from Johannesburg’s National School of the Arts, and spent two years in Brussels at the Performing Arts Research and Training School. She and her company have performed widely, including Germany, England and Israel.

I first saw her last September in the William Kentridge opera Refuse The Hour at BAM. She performed several solos and her quick, explosive movements, showing an African influence, caught and held the eye. At times she suggested a bantam rooster. She returned to New York, where the Joyce Theater presented her unconventional version of Swan Lake. Masilo likes narrative because, to her, it is important to create stories that are understood. She has done a version of Romeo and Juliet with a multi-racial Capulet family, a Carmen that is African influenced flamenco with the bull in a central role, and a version of Death and The Maiden that emphasizes female strength and gender oppression.

She has purposely evolved a style that she terms “fusion.” It uses the arms in a balletic manner, but the legs go into the ground, like African dance. Masilo feels strongly about the need for co-existence – in dance and in people’s concepts of dance and each other. She believes in putting different styles together, aware that dance is constantly evolving, and wishes to create an opening up rather than a boxing in.

Her concept of contemporary dance relates to her own training in ballet and modern; it includes strong footwork and torso movement and varying rhythms and directions. When she fuses two styles of dance she also fuses their rhythms.

Masilo’s aim in choreography is not political, but rather to create a narrative art form. However, she deals with political issues such as homosexuality, race, gender, domestic violence and the differences in cultures. One of her goals is to open minds and change traditions without destroying them.

Swan Lake , which Masilo first saw at the age of twelve, is the most classic of classical ballets. Her version keeps much of the Tchaikovsky score, adding music by Reich, Part, Saint-Saens and Avenant, but she has changed the story.

Traditionally the tale is about Siegfried, who has come of age and must marry. He falls in love with Odette, a princess changed into a swan who can be saved only by faithful love, which Siegfried pledges. He is fooled by Odile, who makes him think she is Odette, thereby dooming all. In Masilo’s version Siegfried is married off to Odette by his mother, but he is gay and loves Odile, who is danced by a male in pointe shoes. The ballet deals with homophobia, arranged marriage and physical violence and – like the original – does not end happily.

There are bare chested male swans in tutus, females in tutus, jazzy interludes, African hip circles, delicate ballet arms and much humor. One section, accompanied by the dancer’s spoken words, is a takeoff on ballet. It was performed by Nicola Haskins, a dancer/actress who is the only white member of the company. It will be interesting to see what “sacred” work Masilo will take over the line next. Hopefully, she will bring it to New York.

In this age of galloping technology, the destruction of the environment, madcap inside/out politics and the return of such phenomena as human slavery, art seems the only avenue that has a chance of disrupting what has become negative dominant narratives. Of these four artists, Brown and Masilo might be considered conscious disruptors. Their aim is to change. McGuire and Smith are concentrating on probing their own consciousness and capabilities, but their results can affect and change an audience, which is a disruption in itself.

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