Sunday, October 7, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Rose Colored Glasses" (on David Roussève and his dance company REALITY,'s Halfway to Dawn)

rose colored glasses
by Douglas Messerli

David Roussève and his dance company REALITY, Halfway to Dawn / Los Angeles, REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, the performance I saw was on Thursday, October 4, 2018

One might not be able to imagine a better way to organize a dance concert as tying it to the life of black jazz composer, arranger, and performer Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn, writing (sometimes anonymously and sometimes receiving open credit) with Duke Ellington, not only gave the famed band a more coherent jazz sound but wrote and scored some of its most noted songs, including “Grievin’,” “Take the A-Train,” “Love Came,” “Blood Count,” and “Lotus Blossom,” the last song with which choreographer David Roussève and his dance group, REALITY (consisting of Bernard Brown, Raymond Ejofor, Dezaré Foster, Jasmine Jawato, Kevin Le, Julio Medina, Samantha Mohr, Leanne Iacovetta Poirier, and Kevin Williamson) ended their performance of Halfway to Dawn which premiered at REDCAT on Thursday night.
      The performance basically takes us through Strayhorn’s career with Ellington and others —another close friend was singer Lena Horne—in mostly chronological order, filling in some facts about Strayhorn’s colorful life with written information projected onto a back screen, along with images and innovative lighting by Roussève’s collaborators, L. MSP Burns, d Sabela grimes, Christopher Kuhl, Lean Phiel, Cari Ann Shim Sham, Katelan Brayer, and Aexsa Durrans that further elucidate elements of Strayhorn’s life.
      It doesn’t hurt, moreover, that the classically-trained diminutive composer, Strayhorn, looked more like a computer nerd than a jazz musician and that he lived an openly gay life—with two major lovers, African-American jazz pianist Aaron Bridgers, and a white man, Bill Grove—while smoking and drinking heavily through most of his career. Strayhorn was also active in racial politics and became a friend of Martin Luther King. Even Lena Horne wished she might marry him!
    In many respects Strayhorn might remind one of gay lyricist, Lorenz Hart, who under Richard Rodger’s collaborator also did not always get the attention he deserved. Yet, as the years passed Ellington did give more and more credit to the man behind much of his success.
    Ellington wrote of him: "Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” And later, after his friend’s death, wrote a beautiful tribute to the man, describing Strayhorn was living out "four major moral freedoms": "freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from self-pity (even through all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might possibly help another more than it might himself and freedom from the kind of pride that might make a man think that he was better than his brother or his neighbor."
     In Strayhorn, accordingly, Roussève has found what you might describe as a kind of unspoken “saint,” certainly a man who deserves an intelligent bio-pic and is certainly worth a dance company’s attention.
     And in most instances the choreographer moves his distinct company through a combination of joyful struts, clever and sometimes humorous interludes, and anguished body positions which show what are clearly the various aspects of the composer’s life. I was particularly moved by the first act’s dances based on the composer’s “Grievin’,” “Take the A-Train,” “After All,” and “Your Love Has Faded.”
     Yet, ultimately, I found these pieces didn’t quite cohere in a terpsichorean whole, or even present themselves as a coherent ensemble of great dance moments. As those who know my writing realize, I adore narrative, but here its hand was just too heavy as we attempted to quickly read the written texts and assimilate information that in the end did not fully contribute to the pleasure of the dance. Perhaps a longer, written text in the program, filling us in on Strayhorn’s life might have better served the works.
      Clearly Roussève and his contributors must have sensed this even themselves, permitting, in the second act, the Strayhorn story to move into far more abstract territory—apparently, according to the choreographer, to demonstrate a life somewhat falling apart—and allowing the company to move into a less structural format in “I’m Checking Out Goombye.” “Lush Life,” and the beautiful ending number, “Lotus Blossom.”
     If there is something wonderfully ambitious and genre-bending in Halfway to Dawn’s mix of dance, biography, and story-telling, it is, in the end, only “halfway” there. As it is, we must keep adjusting our lens, moving in and out of the pure body movements and grand musical accompaniment with jibs and jabs of somewhat ineffectual story-telling. As incredible as Billy Strayhorn’s story is, perhaps dancing to his remarkable music might have to mean less attention to his life and more focus on the music and its rhythms themselves.
     Still, I suggest everyone in Los Angeles run downtown this afternoon for the final matinee performance, and when this moves on to the Brooklyn Academy in New York, everyone who loves dance should flock to see Roussève’s brave attempt to yoke so many genres. And, yes, there ought to be a movie, perhaps incorporating dance, a kind of musical theater surely, as Strayhorn himself, with Lester Henderson, started without completing in their Rose Colored Glasses.

Los Angeles, October 7, 2018

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