Art can almost always teach us something about ourselves, our spirituality, our culture, our history. Part of the fun is discovering the unexpected – something you didn’t know you wanted to know. During Luck of the Draw, the annual Black History Month performance by Earthen Vessels (previously known as The Sandra Organ Dance Company, or SODC), the audience is introduced to luminaries both local and less often lauded. The highlighting of Southern musicians and artists like Billy Taylor Jr., Scott Joplin, Dr. John Biggers, and William H. Johnson is welcome education and serves as choreographic stimulus for some of the program’s finer moments.
Artistic director and choreographer, Sandra Organ Solis has gathered together thirteen capable dancers with a variety of strengths for her company. They work well as an ensemble in the character-driven Joplin and Johnson. This mash-up sets the vibrant work of William H. Johnson, an artist of the Harlem Renaissance, against the King of Ragtime’s jaunty melodies. Though living and working during different but consecutive eras, the two artists share commonalities, including somewhat tragic ends, which are revealed by the brief biographies projected prior to the dance work. The juxtaposition is complimentary and the comedic, often slapstick performances are entertaining, making the most of the dancers’ unique abilities.
New works premiering earlier on the bill are undermined by clunky costumes and performances that lack conviction. The adjustable domino-like aprons in Dominoes aka Bones seem like an interesting concept as dancers move about like pieces in a game, but the dancers end up looking as uncomfortable and stiff as the awkward fabric they are wearing. Similarly, the Big Parade quartet looks more inhibited than jazzy in their red marching band regalia.
Fortunately, the dancers appear more at home in the Act I closer, Rails, Rows, and Seasons (also new for 2011). Solis draws inspiration from Four Seasons, a work by muralist, draftsman, and lithographer, Dr. John Biggers. Even if his name is not familiar, it’s likely you’ve seen Biggers’ work around Houston. His murals grace Wortham Center, and the Texas Southern University and University of Houston campuses. Accompanied by a sophisticated Bobby McFerrin groove, the company (costumed in this work by Pat Covington and Pat Padilla, with some additions from Aaron Girlinghouse) is awash in golden hues pulled directly from the artist’s palette. Solis cohesively weaves four female soloists, each representing one of Biggers’ seasonal matriarchs, among a chorus of dancers. This corps moves regally in response to the four season characters, an embodiment of the rail lines and shotgun homes featured as a backdrop in Biggers’ lithograph.
Rock, Paper, Scissor (2004) is revitalized and contributes to Luck of the Draw’s game of chance theme. Sketches of the three basic hand signals for this popular pastime prove unnecessary as the dancers scissor their legs, roll, and float in three distinct sections of choreography. Less clear is the motive for the quartet’s military fatigue attire. However, the partnering is inventive, highlighting the athleticism of dancers Corey Greene and Le’Andre Douglas (two young men versed in urban dance and working with URGEWORKS), and Candace Rattliff and Courtney D. Jones.
Other revived works are included in the program. Between Us is a flirtatious pairing of two duets that never quite sizzle. Angry and Bookends are a coupling of short works inspired by an hilarious boxing sketch (once again delivered to the audience as a precursor). Featuring Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, and Tim Conway, the real fight occurs between rounds. Not exactly a one-two-punch, Solis’s response to the skit takes a solemn tone, while a more direct re-creation finds its way into Joplin and Johnson. Delight Songs features poetic contributions from young students recorded in 2002 for an assignment within the Writers in Schools Project. The audience views this simple and elegant interpretation twice in a row, the only change, a different piece of music. The experiment becomes a bit of a game as the audience can cast a private vote for their favorite. For the record, I preferred what was behind door #1.
Though the artistry and performances are not always consistent, Earthen Vessels (SODC) is particularly and uniquely strong in its delivery of history and genuine entertainment through the contemporary dance medium. Luck of the Draw presents enough variety to provide a little something for everyone and would be especially enjoyable and educational for families.
Performances of Luck of the Draw continue at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex next weekend, February 25-26 at 7:30pm, and Sunday, February 27 at 2:30pm. For tickets visit organdance.org.
Reprinted from Dance Source Houston