Eleone Dance Theatre premiered a wonderful reconstruction of Katherine Dunham's
Saturday afternoon at Freedom Theatre, showing it can perform at a fully professional level, though most of the program did not rise that high.
Eleone, having received a $46,000 grant from the Pew Foundation's Dance Advance to rebuild parts of Dunham's revue-style suite, brought in former Dunham dancers Ruby Streate, of the Katherine Dunham Center, and Glory Van Scott to oversee the project.
A "Prologue" got it off on the right foot with a joyful demonstration of Dunham movement: the guys jumping higher than the gals' heads, the gals rotating their wrists along with their hips, that rib-pumping thing goin' on, a whole lotta stomping, and shimmying down to their knees.
"Field Hands" had the men doing the buck and wing until the ladies joined them for "Plantation Dances," square-dance styled to "O, Dem Golden Slippers" and other tunes. My personal favorite was the comedic "Ragtime Dance" with Eleone executive director Sheila A. Ward dancing the Dunham role to "Darktown Strutters Ball." "Cakewalk" was very Mummer-y with high kicking, strutting, and unbelievably high side-split jumps by Mark Caserta and newcomer Daniel Moore.
Other dances worth mentioning were the premiere of DuJuan Smart Jr.'s Nothing Even Matters at All with Smart and Shalay Johnson as a sexy, spatting couple; Tommie-Waheed Evans' (of Philadanco) Meetings, and Christopher Huggins' praise dance Rain on Us Lord.
When the work is this enjoyable, three hours is easy to sit through. But Eleone's shows, though raucous good fun, are also nerve-jangling and don't put either the student company (Connections) or the professional one in the best light. Again this year, the students' five dances were interspersed with the professional company's, forcing the audience to flip through programs to figure out what they were seeing, with much rustling. Worse, the switchoff between great pros and budding students ill-served both. Eleone is ready for a two- or three-night run of its own.
For its 15th anniversary next year, Eleone is using an $80,000 grant to bring in Diane MacIntyre, choreographer of the 1998 film Beloved. This is an important step for the company, but would be more so if there were funding for a programming consultant and technical support.
It seems Ward is focused on the students. If so, perhaps it's time for her to step aside and let artistic director Shawn-LaMere Williams take over the programming so Eleone can fly as it should. Freedom Theater is a jewel and Eleone is a fine training ground for choreographers and dancers. Who knows how much higher it could go?