When it comes to Sandra Organ’s choreography, what you see is what you get. In titling her latest concert, Seen and Unseen, her 11th offering in honor of Black History Month, Organ has discovered a play on words that evokes shades of meaning. Perhaps the most tangible example is the inclusion of both premiere and revisited works in the program — some of these from the earliest days of the company’s history when Organ first transitioned from her 15-year career with Houston Ballet. Digging deeper, however, motifs throughout the presentation indicate expressions of the (unseen) spirit. In addition, Organ’s newest dances are layered with themes regarding the journey of African Americans from slavery to freedom, from a status of invisibility to visibility within our nations’ history, and depict the invisible (but no less palpable) bonds of prejudice and bigotry. Her dance-making style is brief and to the point, like an anecdote rather than an epic; movements are offered without pretense; there is little guesswork as to the meaning or intention of gestures; strong narratives are applied with heavy use of extracted text and, at times, song lyrics.
Organ patently reveals her origins in and fondness for the liturgical, or sacred dance aesthetic and she displays an obvious passion for the written word. The centerpiece of the evening, a work titled Douglass/renouncing the slave machine, depicts the life of Frederick Douglass from his time as an enslaved boy to his emergence as a leader and abolitionist. The action is accompanied by a supportive array of musical selections but it is the text (excerpts from Douglass’ autobiography) and narration (eloquently provided by Phillip Brent, Sr.), that is featured most prominently.
Because the choreography is lovely in form and design, the overall effect of the evening is an enjoyable one. However, with so much straightforward translation of text and ideas to movement, the dances reveal all, leaving little room for inference or conjecture. Inevitably, then, there are moments in this collection of short works that fail to keep the audience’s imaginations engaged. Nonetheless, Organ expertly crafts beautiful pictures and viewers cannot help but feel connected to the honesty, sincerity, and humanity in her work.
There is a range of technical skill within the company yet the dancers move well together. It would be nice to see some of the dancing truly let loose, particularly in the final number, Freedom, which includes the entire company. As it stands, small ensemble and solo sections throughout the evening are most notable, including a well-executed pas de deux by Richard Hubscher and Paola Georgudis, the small groupings in All That You Have Is Your Soul, featuring music by Tracy Chapman, and Organ’s heartfelt solo, Invisible No More. In a post-show Q&A company members offered a glimpse of the life of contemporary dancers when asked what they do when they are not dancing, revealing that most companies cannot afford to pay dancers enough to make a living through performance. Hopefully, this is among the unseen truths that the audience took away with them opening night.
Seen and Unseen is an uplifting production that has the informality of a community gathering, or perhaps a lecture demonstration. The works presented in Seen and Unseen may not be a model of dance that appeals to everyone — those that appreciate more abstracted or complex structure in contemporary dance art, may find Organ’s work too literal for their taste — but it is accessible to everyone, making Sandra Organ Dance Company’s contribution to dance an important one for helping to bridge the gap between art and its public.