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In the Moment: ‘What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Project’ at Reston’s CenterStage

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As DC area performing arts companies continue to grapple with advancing issues of social justice into the public realm in these stressful days, DC is certainly not alone. In 2015 the Ford Foundation announced an effort to advance the arts, culture and social justice issues for the 21st century.

What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Project. Photo by Jonathan Hsu.

One of the Ford Foundation messengers for connecting dance with social justice was Robert Battle, Artistic Director, Alvin Ailey Dance Company. He spoke eloquently of dance and movement as a weapon for social change and “not just comfort food.” Now that is a powerful comment for all of us in the performing arts.

But, we don’t have to schlep to NYC to connect dance and movement with social justice issues. We have our own home-grown agents for connecting social justice and societal change through the beauty, power and allure of choreography.

Showing the way here in the local area is What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Project. This project is a urban/suburban co-commission of  DC’s Dance Place, the National Performance Network, and of Reston’s CenterStage

The title of evening length dance performance comes from Marvin Gaye’s 1971 singular vocal plea for justice with its refrain “Talk to me, so you can see what’s going on.”

Performed to acclaim several months ago at DC’s Dance Place, the production will be performed at Reston’s CenterStage. Then it will go on tour to reach out well beyond the confines of the DC region.

As Paul Douglas Michnewicz, Arts and Events Director of the Reston Community Center, made clear in a recent interview:

The Reston audience is very familiar with Marvin Gaye and his message resonates today…Marvin Gaye and indeed our choreographers ask the audience to take action against what they believe to be injustice.

This column is based upon interview with Carla Perlo, Co-Founding Director of Dance Place, and dancer, choreographer, and teacher, Vincent E. Thomas.

David Siegel: What was the impetus of your idea to produce this piece?

Carla Perlo: The idea for the work was generated by 5th generation Washingtonian Richard Pilkinton, a long-time supporter of Dance Place and enthusiast for the field of dance. He was particularly fond of the music of Marvin Gaye who grew up in Northeast Washington, DC, and after lengthy discussions with Dance Place and Vincent E. Thomas we decided to create an evening length work to the music of Marvin Gaye that explores the same themes as Marvin’s music: love, life and social justice.

Vincent E. Thomas was selected as the project’s Artistic Director and lead choreographer. Sylvia Soumah, (Artistic Director of Coyaba Dance Theater) and Ralph Glenmore, former Alvin Ailey dancer were hired as additional choreographers and assistant artistic advisers to the Marvin Gaye project.

What was your involvement with What’s Going On?

Vincent E. Thomas: Richard Pilkinton invited me to talk about this idea. Ironically the song “What’s Going On” was on my mind after hearing it on the radio prior to the dinner. We discussed the power of his music and the fact that he is a DC native. I began reflecting on when his music entered my consciousness (my soul)…what remained as strong pillars for the project- life, love, and social justice.

How did the collaboration develop including the selection of Marvin Gaye music?

Yes, we wanted to include a range of physical movement in the project, so we asked Ralph Glenmore (Jazz choreographer and former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater member) and Sylvia Soumah (African choreographer and director of Coyaba Dance) to join the artistic team. It has been really wonderful developing the project with them, having the music speak through the various dance styles expanded and elevated the work.

The music selection process began with the songs that spoke to each of us individually. There is a ton of music to choose from and I feel the playlist will give a solid glimpse of the life, love, and social consciousness of Marvin Gaye.

How has current times in America impacted and informed the development of What’s Going On: the Marvin Gaye Project?

From the initial conversation with Richard Pilkinton, the current times in America were on my mind. This became such a strong guiding force for me throughout every artistic decision and hugely impacted the creative process. It is timely…it is timeless…it is now.

What can the audience expect at the performance in Reston? 

The audience will have an amazing experience. It is not a performance where one just sit and watch…you will be mentally and physically engaged, on the edge of your seat wanting to join in on stage. When developing this work, I didn’t want it to be a normal concert. Because of the music and the subject matter, it had to be different. I want the audience to be engaged on many levels from the start. The audience will laugh, cry, reminisce, dance, hum/sing, tap foot, snap or clap, be challenged, and empowered. There is something for everyone.

The work is a cauldron of Modern, African, and Jazz dance. There are nine performers (including myself). We will be joined by guest dancers of Reston’s Gin Dance.

What are the musical selections that you have chosen?

I would like to highlight the album What’s Going On. Although there are many songs included that are not on this album, but the relevance of this album to where we are as a nation and world is so timely.

What would you like the audience to take away after attending the Marvin Gaye Project performance?

If there is one thing I know the audience will take away after attending the performance, it would be a charge to be active in their communities for social change.

What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Project plays on February 22, 2017, at 8 PM at Reston Community Center‘s CenterStage – 2310 Colts Neck Road, in Reston, VA. Tickets are available online.  

Note: What’s Going On: The Marvin Gaye Project tour information can be found here.

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