Dawn Marie Bazemore creates socio-political work of substance

by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

Dawn Marie Bazemore presented the premiere of Letters along with a re-staging of The Browder Project at the Performance Garage on April 19th and 20th.  The concert was a cumulation of her work under Dance Visions Artist Residency offered through The Performance Garage.  The residency offers developing choreographers rehearsal space, marketing, funding, administrative support and a fully produced concert as explained by Jeanne Ruddy, Executive Director, prior to the start of the performance.

The first half of the performance introduced us to Letters, which felt like a collection of six short stories, each with their own theme, yet very well integrated into what was a solidly executed collection.  According to Bazemore, who introduced the piece, it was an “embodiment of a compilation of letters she wrote to people who she could not seem to reach”. In essence, it is the conversations that go unsaid that can allow one to be empowered or find a resolution.

The set opened with make-shift church pews on stage for the first of the letters, Church.  Repetitive phrasing with head bowed and bible holding dancers, William E. Davis Burden, Miko Doi-Smith, Alexandria Harrison and Jhelan Gordon-Salaam, took us to a spiritual place with an occasional revivalist tambourine thrown in as well. As the piece progressed Church seemed less about a place and more about those unspoken conversations with God as well as unanswered questions.

State added two more dancers to the cast with Joe Gonzalez and Leah Friedman joining in. At times there is a conformity in the dancers with methodical and carefully chosen movements, which then break to more scattered and perhaps individualistic approaches. There is a constant circling, re-grouping and breaking apart as if struggling to establish a community amongst political turmoil. Clearly, this piece was a reflection of the times.

The next section, Who Said That, was a series of smaller pieces based on audience letters collected at the beginning of the program, and apparently incorporated into a framework or score. This section, while perhaps attempting to engage the audience, seemed to have less impact and lacked the emotional connection that the rest of the program offered. At best, it was difficult to discern the messages being imparted.

Subway Stories, performed by the full cast with Ms. Bazemore, opened with the dancers in a line reminiscent of “strap-hangers’ on a subway with unison arm and leg movement in slow motion. As they break from this line, it becomes clear that we are bearing witness to a sexual assault. The gripping movement reflected this and was later confirmed by Bazemore as being her own personal experience. The piece resolves through what appears to be a gravitation towards self-empowerment. The choreography and tight execution by the dancers fully conveyed the horrific nature of this event as well as the development of inner strength in the face of such adversity.

Falling Into, a duet performed by Joe Gonzalez and Jhelan Gordon-Salaam, was the strongest of the ‘letters’ in this half of the program.  We are presented with a couple who seem to be struggling with their relationship. Their movement clearly signified trauma, while still maintaining some semblance of a connection. Gonzalez and Gordon-Salaam masterfully display tension, a pulling away, and a coming together in grief, and awkwardness and then separation once again. Bazemore later explained that this was inspired by a letter she wrote to “Trayvon Martin’s parents about how the trauma of losing their son must have affected their already fractured relationship”.

The final letter, Home was a solo performance by Dawn Marie Bazemore.  A series of phrasing is repeated with minor variations as Bazemore moves through the space.  At first, the piece felt a bit unfinished, but then it became evident that this was quite intentional.  It was perhaps a conversation or series of conversations that never occurred or were left without resolution. As the lights dimmed and the first half concluded, one could not help but reflect on all of those words left unspoken.

The second half of the program was the re-staging of The Browder Project with original music by composer Jeff Story. It was the story of Kalief Browder, a young man who committed suicide two years after he returned home from a three-year pre-trial detention on Riker’s Island Prison. The dance, accompanied by video footage by filmmaker, Jasmine Lynea, was both poignant and emotional. Through the genres of hip-hop, modern, ballet and tap movements, we gain insight into the anger, depression, and paranoia Browder suffered as a victim of prison abuse and years in solitary confinement.

William E. Davis Burden in the role of Kalief made us feel the physical and mental imprisonment that had occurred. Burden’s frantic movements and anguished expressions in a make-shift prison cell set on stage conveyed the trauma of not being seen as innocent as a black man in America. His performance was so genuine that it was difficult to hold back the tears while watching.  The additional cast of Joe Gonzalez, Victor Lewis Hr., Alexandria Hairston, Leah Friedman, and Jhelan Gordon-Salaam were simply exquisite in their level of vulnerability and understanding as well as the ability to convey this emotionally laden subject through movement and expression.

Miko Doi-Smith in the role of Kalief’s mother was a standout. Doi-Smith shows us the love of a mother for her son, the desperation to restore normalcy, the helplessness of the situation, and the grief from loss. We are finally left with a message of hope that change can and must occur as voiced by vocalist David Bazemore, who had been seated amongst the audience.

With The Browder Project, Bazemore truly exhibits her strength as a choreographer and storyteller, evoking emotions, seeking truths, and forcing us to confront our own notions of social justice and a system that has become horribly flawed in America.  Her work is deeply personal, shows strength and substance, and I look forward to seeing more of what she will create going forward.

To view a complete collection of photographs from the performance online on FaceBook, click here

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