Not the Same Old Song and Dance

Anyone who's seen choreographer David Rousseve's dances broadcast on PBS or live in Arizona in the past several years knows he likes to populate the stage like it's a small town. As he did in Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams at Gammage in 1994 and, more recently, in Dry Each Other's Tears in the Stillness of the Night in Tucson, Rousseve stays true to form in his new work, Love Songs. It premiered in Chicago in September, and has been touring the country, showing in Washington, D.C., in late October.

One of Rousseve's artistic missions is "to involve performers and non-performers from diverse communities through direct participation in the creative process." In its November 7 Arizona premiere at Gammage, Love Songs will draw people from the Valley to flesh out Rousseve's company, which, with him and six dancers, is called REALITY.

You can expect a lot from REALITY. Finely tuned pros, they dance like angels and put on what Rousseve calls an "emotionally naked" and highly entertaining show. Just don't expect much reality. Rousseve's new dance theater work draws on African-American folklore, European music and decor, legends, and some factual and disturbing events fancifully portrayed. And watch out for the Flying Africans, who some slaves believed could fly away to escape.

Work on Love Songs began in August 1997 while the text, which is drawn from African-American idioms from 18th-century slave times to the present, was only a sketch, taking its direction from the movement vocabulary as it developed.

As a story of love that's doomed by slavery but survives in spirit, its operatic staging and music suit it well. Rousseve, in multiple roles, narrates the story in fragments, modeling his first character on his grandfather, who "was the most down-home country storyteller." Among the eight roles he'll play are Grady McCrady, whose arm shakes with palsy, and Tin Man, an "urban, all-knowing, universal crackhead."

This might look pretty low-down for a guy who graduated from Princeton and now teaches at UCLA. But from Rousseve's perspective, Love Songs gives the highest honors to people who show their ability to love. He wants it to represent "the deeper terrain of the heart."

His large dance theater work runs more than two hours and is told through narration, operatic music, and movement he calls "expressionistic and ritualistic." How he came to work in all these media is interesting.

"At home in Houston, I studied as an actor in musical comedy. But when I started studying ballet and modern dancing, I found I had more to say than I could in musical theater. At Princeton, I studied with Ze'Eva Cohen, who introduced me to elements of shamanism and spirituality. On campus, I studied [Jose] Limon and [Martha] Graham. I took ballet off campus."

Also at Princeton, he met two people whose influence he still feels today--dancer and choreographer Jean Erdman, and her husband Joseph Campbell, author of numerous books on mythology, most notably Hero With a Thousand Faces.

"My first dance job out of Princeton was with Jean, who with Joe talked about 'Total Theater.' They blended music, myth, dance and text."

Rousseve soon knew how he needed to work.
"Later, after seeing a dance I had choreographed, Jean came up to me and asked, 'Have you read Joe's book Hero's Journey?' I admitted I had not," he says. "'Well, you should,' she said, 'because it was just danced step by step.'"

After reading the book, he realized she was right, and so was the path he had taken. If you saw Bill Moyers' six-part series with Campbell on PBS in the '80s, you might have taken the same advice Rousseve did from Campbell: "Follow your bliss."

But few of us can follow our bliss all the time. Since he last visited the Valley, Rousseve moved from New York to Los Angeles for a teaching post at UCLA. Suffering burnout from the funding struggles all artists face today, he said, "It was not my bliss at first, but it led to a real excavation of the heart. I have more downtime, and I let that feed me. My work has taken a step in a different direction. It's less literal. Of course, I miss an urban center to walk in. That feeds me, too, but in a different way."

He gets that kind of nourishment when he and his dancers meet to work on new projects. "Ilaan Egland lives in L.A., too, and Kyle Sheldon lives in San Francisco. So we all sort of converge on each other in New York."

With Love Songs, they arrived at a work that sweeps over eras that saw slavery, female genital mutilation and drug addiction; and ends in a sublimely bittersweet modern dance.

The set, music and references to classical high art comment on the Eurocentrism that, by its classism, still lords over the cultures of peoples of color. The opening scene recalls Medea, with a mother murdering her child, not only to avenge herself on a cheating husband, but to save the child from suffering in slavery.

Soon the stage transforms into a tattered grand ballroom designed by Debbie Lee Cohen. She set its high arched windows on ox carts and has them pulled around by slaves to change the scenery from indoor to outdoor.

Rousseve uses the great, soul-wrenching love arias from Tannhauser, Tristan and Isolde and Samson and Delilah both for their overwhelming beauty and for parody. In an open field one night, the slave Sarah, played by Charmaine Warren, sees the Flying Africans. One comes down to her as a black male Venus in an ante-bellum wig and hoop skirt. Venus gives Sarah a golden chalice filled with a love potion, instructs her to save it for the one she wants to be her love and then says, "I can't stay long because I have my Act III Tannhäuser cameo."

When the master brings Sarah's destined lover, John, to the plantation, she quickly gives John the chalice. They fall in love and, proverbially, that's when the real trouble begins.

Rousseve mixes gender and number, casting two or more dancers in the same role. He has Steven Washington dance John, for the most part, and alternately, Terri Hollis. Sheldon and Egland dance the master. Julie Tolentino and Egland play the part of Rebecca.

But don't be confused by the casting--just follow the costumes.

REALITY is scheduled to perform Love Songs at 8 p.m. Saturday, November 7, at Gammage Auditorium, located at Mill and Apache in Tempe.

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Merilyn Jackson