Review: A Resounding Reclamation for Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project


Imagine, a perfect Summer evening in the heart of Chicago’s Millennium Park. The breeze is fresh, the sun is descending, the moon is new. It’s Saturday, August 27th and the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project is minutes from the start of “Reclamation.” “Reclamation”, a word that invites an energy of reform and claiming something back, is the title of CBDLP’s third joint performance. It is by far the most ambitious, welcoming over seven thousand supporters into the heart of downtown Chicago. DJ Nick Nonstop is tasked with warming the welcome in the show’s prelude. His Afro-house set is good. Really good. As the stadium-like pit and lawn begin to swell with people, there is an anticipation in the crowd that feels like we are getting ready to experience something exceptional.

Mirror dance by Afefe Iku began to play as I noticed the pristine Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project Logo on the ginormous back scrim. I scanned my qr code for the program, bopped my shoulders, sat back in a third row seat and took in the magnitude of the moment. “Reclamation” was already epic and as the song says, “We’ve only just begun.”

Presented in partnership with the The Logan Center for the Arts and the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, “Reclamation” was the culminating performance of a multi-year project. The CBDLP, envisioned by Tracy D. Hall received initial funding by the Joyce Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation and has grown to receive support from an expanding list of donors. CBDLP is a capacity building project that aims to shine a light on the many inequities that exist in funding and allocation of resources for black dance companies in Chicago. The project is also an opportunity to truly celebrate the selected eight Chicago-based companies while strengthening their efforts to build solidarity and new pathways to ensure their legacies persist. The inaugural cohort includes: Forward Momentum, Deeply Rooted, Joel Hall Dancers, Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Company, Muntu Dance Theatre, Najwa Dance Corp, Red Clay Dance Company and Ayodele Drum and Dance.

With opening remarks given by Erin Harkey, Commissioner of DCASE, Bill Michel Executive Director of the Logan Center for the arts, Emily Hooper Lansana Senior Director of Community Arts at the Logan Center for the arts, and Princess Mhoon, Director of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project we were reminded of the intrinsic connections that bond the companies and the galaxy of north stars that have served as guiding spirits for this moment to exist. One of which, mentioned multiple times was the honorable Katherine Dunham.

“Kimbara,” choreographed by Forward Momentum’s Founder and Artistic Director Pierre Lockett, was the perfect spicy opening for “Reclamation.” Investing in the spirit and talent of nearly sixty young dancers is the most ideal way to assert ourselves in the future of black dance. The ensemble made a statement in matching red leotards and satin skirts. Black dance is American dance as Mhoon stated in the opening remarks and American dance is global too. Darling red flowers accented the sides of the dancer’s heads, channeling both Billie Holiday and Frida Khalo. With hands on their hips and red lipped smiles they gave a “lets get loud” stage presence that made every parent and the city of Chicago proud. Energetic horns reminiscent of the harmony of Hector Lavoe’s classic song “Aguanile” set the stage for them to shake their little bones, move in unison, to the right, to the left and remind us that the ever-evolving catalog of black dance also includes our favorite afro-latin styles.

In the second number, a suspenseful male duo, dressed in velvety black, sized each other up in Deeply Rooted’s excerpt from “Episodes,” choreographed by Ulysses Dove The company, led by Co-Founder Kevin Iega Jeff and Artistic Director Nicole Clark-Springer, danced to a synth-pop soundtrack designed by Robert Ruggieri. The first male duo appeared to stop time with their elongated wide second position stance. I imagined graffiti and a back alley 80’s knife fight, but instead of weapons their razor sharp arms were the blades. High knee jumps were canons and the partnering was absolutely stirring.

Like a revolving door, the dynamic duets took it outside and battled, for hearts, dominance, power and blood. They expounded the possibilities of basic shapes by creating geometrically complex statements through partnering. Sleek and edgy hairstyles created a conversational piece of their own. Whipping pony tails sliced through space, Emani Drake’s bright red ombre-colored afro gave us power and heated curb appeal, a cane-rowed Ahmad Hill added comedy with his full-bodied gestures and sho-nuff commitment. Two clean head shaven men danced a duet that reminded us of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” with their mirror moves. Head-to-toe stares and intense grilling added a magnetic element of drama that kept us engaged. This piece was so fresh yet familiar, bringing us a bit of nostalgia for the days when artists like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna dominated, creating space for dancers to pull out their full arsenal of technique. I couldn’t get enough of the thrill of “Episodes” and found myself somehow hoping I would see it again before the night’s end.

Similar to the late 80’s/90’s feel of “Episodes” was Joel Hall Dancers’ classic “El Gato Negro” (1992) choreographed by the company’s founder Joel Hall. The piece is a signature work that recognizes a turning point in history when Jazz and Modern dance were influenced by street dance. Bookmarking an era when we stayed up late to watch Michael Jackson close the awards and back up dancers did switch leaps in music videos, “El Gato Negro”  creates a mood that gives us quintessential Chicago style jazz with battements, jazz walks, chainé turns, black zoot suits and smooth criminal fidoras. It’s both studio precision and “in dem streets” flare. Energized leg wiggles, hip-hop duo Kriss Kross knee lifts and splits of course. An intergenerational crowd pleaser, “El Gato Negro” looked as fun to dance as it was to watch.

Swept up by an intoxicating groove of Afro-beats, I put down my pen and forgot I was here to dissect dance for a couple minutes.

Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center’s world famous Hiplet dancers, founded by Homer Bryant, performed a three part work entitled “Power” choreographed by Taylor Edwards, Kristoffer Bellvie, Trevon Lawrence in Singiwewe; Taylor Edwards, Homer Bryant, Kristiffer Bellvie in Pas de deus and Anthony Sampson in the Beyonce Segment. The dancers came out on pointe following a blazing all male Afro-beat introduction. Simulating the royal blue clad male dancers, Hiplet rocked African print crop tops and skorts. Their crisp Egyptian postures resembled Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” music video. They also showcased African culture with their Nigerian Afro-beat dances and modified Egyptian postures as well as African-American tutting. All on ballet pointe, the Hiplet dancers gave face and entertained the crowd in a way that was accessible to all. Although we are used to Hiplet switching the script and mixing classical ballet with hip hop, adding Afro-beats to the compound brought the heat on a summertime Burna Boy level.

Photo by Patrick Pyszka

We went from Afro-beats to hometown pride when guest artists Global Creation performed their untitled piece. Choreographed by Mike D Chicago & King Charles they had us jukin’ on site with their bops and sick footwork. The crowd pleaser featured sped up tracks like “Aye bay bay” and “Can you bounce.” It’s always nice to see footwork on a large stage, being that it was a style we used to see mostly at house parties and school dances. The evolution that the style has had in large part because of dedicated members of groups like Global Creation continues to affirm the influence of black dance today.

Concluding the first act was Najwa Dance Corps’ “Guinea Suite” choreographed by Mouminatou Camara. Immaculately draped in traditional West African garb, the women carried a power and regality that moved like a Lake Michigan current. With wisdom in their bodies and hearts, Najwa’s complete presence was bar none. Moving from a center of confidence and knowing, swaying with a slew of drummers dressed in black, red and green- checkered hoods, they maintained a bountiful bounce and infectious sense of joy. Dancing both Guinea Fare and Sorsonea we felt the high vibratory protection of joy and a shield of prayer over our youth. With mature dancers, Najwa Dance Corp,  founded over forty years ago reminds us that they are both history and also the future.

The second act opened with “Summer Breeze at Casa de Abuela Gui,” envisioned by long-time musician Idris Daniel and choreographed by Muntu Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director Regina Perry-Carr and Asiel Hardison. “Summer Breeze at Casa de Abuela Gui” was not only a dedication to the legendary former Artistic Director Amaniyea Payne but also felt like a powerful moment for black and brown solidarity in the city. Trumpets blared from Angel Rodriguez and the Chicago Latin Orchestra and rhythms pulsed from Muntu Dance Theatre Music Ensemble. The celebratory piece, re-imagined in Havana, burst with fellowship and fun. An electric ensemble of drummers played Mali rhythms for the Gui dance, generally done in West Africa to celebrate weddings and baptism. Indigo and white-clad musicians and dancers created a tropical spectacle, as Salsa duos and trios exchanged spirited turns with one another. One of my favorite moments was when the large cast assembled in a circle and began to do Salsa Rueda, which is a Cuban form of communal salsa. The blend of West African and Afro-Cuban styles was so fluid it was difficult to see where Salsa ended and Gui began.

The height of “Reclamation” continued to build with Red Clay Dance Company’s majestic performance of “Incarnation 1,” Choreographed by Du’Bois A’keen. Helmed by founder and progressive Artistic Director, Vershawn Sanders Ward, the five company members imagined their preparation for transition through this striking performance.

Unapologetically taking up space on the massive Millennium Park stage, we were mesmerized as the pieces program description served up a quiet chant in our heads: the body as archive, the body as access point, the body as altar. Gently hovering over one another, the quintet pranced on stage in a shape that resembled a giant caterpillar. Dressed in the finest champagne colored lace, ruffles and sequins designed by Kelley KFleye Moseley, each moment took our breath away as individual dancers liberated themselves from the pack. Sometimes it was a feather-like wave of the arms, sometimes the body landed with more weight. “Incarnation 1” was a work that helped us to appreciate the complex process it takes to create, as much as we appreciate the beauty we see in unveiling. Every enchanting movement was a minty whisper as we were taken on an ethereal journey, leaving us with an echo of butterflies that reverberated in our hearts and minds.

Madd Rhythms, a historic tap dance company also based in Chicago and founded by Brill Barrett, was another guest performance company that shined with a riveting feature choreographed by M.A.D.D. Rhythms Assistant Director Star Dixon. The piece, “In the Beginning,” was a reminder that tap dance is one of the rawest forms of dance and communication that resembles the elements of Africa. The young tappers showed off their skills for Chicago, accentuating their individuality and syncopated sounds. It was beautiful to see the piece as it continued our appreciation for the motherland and made connections with what is yet to come.

Excerpts from Ayodele Drum and Dance’s “HerStory II Tell: Femmes de Pouvoir “ closed the evening. A boundless T. Ayo Alston, founder and artistic director of Ayodele, entered the stage in a green grassy costume, jolting through space and returning to earth commanding our full attention. The excerpts were from works that celebrated Queen Amina Konkoba and Queen Funmilayo Ransome Kuti. Following Ayo’s exit, the fluorescent Ayodele Queens took center stage while the drumming orchestra accompanied from the side resurrecting the spirit of the Malinke people. Colorful pom pom skirts shook to Guinean rhythms and DounDoun drums while the dancers positioned themselves to create rhythm from the drums lying on the ground but also stretching to the sky. Ayodele always has the village aspect on point.

Showcasing the West African dance and drum continuum they are working day and night to pay forward. Seamlessly shifting between heaven and earth, youth and elder, spirit and flesh, dance and drum, Ayodele Queens defy gravity while occupying all spaces. When three small but mighty dancers entered the stage, I was reminded of the Bob Marley song “Three Little Birds” as they perfected their arm swings and facial expressions in bright traditional African attire for the city to see. Ayodele teens followed with a fire unmatched resurrecting the spirit of Queen Funmilayo Ransome Kuti bringing the evening to a close on the highest note.

Arranged by the beloved DJ Selah Say and one of Chicago’s dearest renaissance women MC Emon Fowler, the music for the custom-designed finale gave us an original Chicago style track. With the word “reclamation” on repeat, the 200 person cast flooded on stage reflecting the renewal of energy they poured into the city. Dressed wholly in white, the cast danced on stage speaking a communal dance language that appeared to be a culmination of the movement performed throughout the two hour evening. Choreographed by CBDLP’s ambitious and visionary Director Princess Mhoon, the curtain call was not simply a curtain call, it was a call to prayer and a call to action.  After the leadership team re-emerged this time including Mashaune Hardy Associate Director of Partnerships and Strategy at the Logan Center along with the companies directors it truly felt like a reverberating moment. A call to action that sprung us out of our seats ready to take classes, donate, show up and show out for these extraordinary companies, dancers, musicians, leaders, administrators, funders and pioneers.  “Reclamation” reminded us that Black dance is here, we’ve been here and we will always be and yes, we too dance America!