Moments into a dimmed house at the historic Lincoln Theatre, an off-stage voice over a loudspeaker made a promise to a buzzing audience: “We’re going to light up the night sky, so dance!”
CityDance’s 2017 DREAMscape Benefit Gala, which brought CityDance DREAM and Conservatory students, professional ballet and contemporary notables from Washington, D.C. and nationally and internationally touring companies under one roof, delivered on that promise with its whole heart.
From start to finish, the performers created a palpable energy that, by the sound of it, elicited low murmurs to full exclamations of joy in the audience – and pulled us further and further to the edge of the seats, until the standing ovation.
Every facet of its ensemble – the students, professional guest dancers, and special host, performing arts legend Debbie Allen – worked magic with a message. An entire dance community sent a bright signal – loud, clear, each of its phrases marked by powerful, fully arched feet – into the here and now.
The curtain rose on Allen: dancer, choreographer, director, and accomplished actress – an icon. Her name speaks for itself and her introduction ignited the proceedings. She defined dance on an individual level; “To dance is to know fear and to face it head on. To dance is to be an explorer always in the mode of discovery of oneself.” She spoke of the arts with a broader scope, on a collective, human level. “The arts have uplifted thousands of lives. We must have the arts as part of a fully-rounded education. It will take creativity to solve global warming, creativity to fix healthcare… there is a reason they say the arts and sciences.”
CityDance’s arbiters of hope – its talented students – took the stage following this inspiring cue. And their dancing proved the perfect complement. Their intricate group choreography was technically demanding. They wove in and out of each other with strong leaps, grand jetés, and back attitudes. These students continue to impress and confidently command the stage as one vivacious mass. Their energy was sustained.
It is a small miracle, a gift, really, to watch young dancers having so much fun – a genuine happiness that radiates from obvious dedication and hard work. Though they returned to close the show, I wanted to see them more. Come back, please; your happiness makes all of us happy. You’re making this room smile. It is possible, when observing, to forget that they are at the beginning. They move with the starting crackles of professional poise.
DREAMscape’s representative professionals, companies from a range of styles, united around these new dancers and showcased their respective forms. The diverse program, alive in its variety, transitioned from ballet to contemporary to tap to ballroom to step.
Act I highlights included “Our Last Lost Chance” (Excerpts) from Bruce Wood Dance Project, a beautiful, yet haunting piece that felt like one long, deep, melancholy exhale. Three dancers (two men and one woman) began on stage at a distance from each other. The entrance of a second female dancer created two couples that appeared to find solace through closer contact. They closed in fuller embraces. Flexed feet, supple leans in and out, and audible breathing lent a corporeal air – an anticipatory peace, the calm before the…
Then, a thunderclap, from hoofer Cartier Williams. One man, upstage, close as he could be, speaking with his feet. Dance language may have no words, but Williams reminded us of dance’s power to strike, underline, and italicize – to communicate. Brief pedestrian skids or walks lent a touch of humor, our human necessity.
Step Afrika!, one of the top 10 African American Dance Companies in the US, dropped and stepped with synchronized precision and created a positive pulse in the space.
The lights dropped. Intermission. A woman rising near me said, “I feel like I have to move!”
Act II featured choreography from CityDance alum Kevin Pajarillaga; a slightly tentative contemporary duet to Phillip Glass from Cincinnati Ballet dancers (who performed classical in Act I), and the most emotionally moving piece, a duet called “Excerpt from ‘Orange Sky’” from Bruce Wood Dance Project. Brian Arias’ quietly playful choreography featured several striking motifs. Dancer Emily Drake, feet flexed, stood tall behind dancer Albert Drake, and elevated just above his waist-level. Albert’s hands propped her behind him and wrapped around her feet with gentle strength. Emily partnered Albert through a turn sequence and in another moment, Albert supported Emily, back concave, through a slow, controlled lift, her feet pedaling, rather than paused and pointed. The two were a subtly dynamic pair, in tune.
Denys Drozdyuk and Antonina Skobina, ballroom dance stars who will appear on NBC’s upcoming television dance competition, “World of Dance” performed a sultry and, at times, lightning-fast piece to Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” That segued into Marius Petipa’s Coppelia pas de deux from expert principals Brooklyn Mack and Maki Onuki of the Washington Ballet.
As stunning as the professionals were, it was most heartening to see the CityDance students return for a final soar. Their skillful contemporary partnering was nothing short of uplifting, yet was grounded in strong technique.
My evening had begun like this: a stalled escalator meant metro passengers were rerouted to one, contained elevator to surface to the street. I filed, in step; I had to step closer to people. The door closed. We were all-pushed-together. A little boy, held in his mom’s arms, made eye contact with someone behind me he didn’t know. He smiled. I smiled. Someone else noticed. It felt important.
The beginning continued. In our interview, Ms. Allen spoke of the moment: “We’re dealing with a time when people are isolating and privatizing the arts. This is something we should all be very wary of and speak out loudly against.” Of our country, she said, “If there’s anything we have here, it is freedom of expression. That is one of the greatest things we have in this country, that we can all say our opinion.”
The arts push us all a little closer for a while, so we can see and hear each other better. CityDance DREAM and CityDance Conservatory programs work to bring this opportunity to its students in the D.C. metropolitan area. Their dancing, D.C.’s dancing last night, can motivate us all to work and step out as better people, wherever we are.
The beginning continued. At the start of the program, center stage, Ms. Allen said, “This is just the beginning. What happens in Washington becomes global. It’s why I came.”
At the end of the program, Ms. Allen, again center stage, called out, “All right, Washington – show the world what’s important!” The beginning continues. So, dance.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Who’s in Town?: Debbie Allen Discusses Hosting the CityDance DREAMscape Gala on Saturday, May 6th at 8pm. by Nicole Hertvik.
Note: A special bow to Choreographer Rob Priore whose amazing artistry touches many of the and past dancers at CityDance.