Painting the stage

Feb 7, 2007 at 12:00 am

Choreographers put novels, poems, even legends on stage, but it is rare to make dances from an artist's paintings. Jacob Lawrence is an artist who, in his depictions of everyday life, expresses intense emotion and movement. His bright and lively urban scenes are populated by statuesque, exagerrated figures bending and reaching with long limbs made for modern dance. Lawrence's paintings have inspired Color-ography, a program of four new dance works by some of today's best-known African-American choreographers.

Premiered on Feb. 3 in Dayton, Ohio, Color-ography, will get two performances at the Detroit Opera House this weekend, just in time for Black History Month.

Lawrence, a painter with roots in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, chronicled the lives of black Americans in such suites of paintings as The Migration of the Negro or his works depicting the life of Harriet Tubman. The Detroit Institute of Arts owns several Lawrence paintings, including his series on the abolitionist John Brown — though none of them is on view during the current renovation — and they are popular because of the themes as well as the vibrant colors and kinetic energy. Lawrence enfolded the prosaic details of ordinary life — a street in Harlem, laborers in the field — into a flat, cubistic style that rendered them larger than life.

"Each choreographer studied Lawrence's work and translated it into dance," says Kevin Ward, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company's director, who is also choreographer of the second piece. "The audience doesn't need to know the Lawrence works," says Ward, "they will enjoy Color-ography on the strength of the work itself."

Carol Halsted, dance director for the Detroit Opera House, says the Dayton group is like "a smaller, youthful Ailey company, and they have earned a place on our roster even though we do mostly classical dance." The company performed once before at the opera house, at an African-American festival.

Talking about the overall show — which even he had not seen when we talked by phone the week of the premiere — Ward says about 20 to 30 of Lawrence's vivid, primary-colored paintings will be projected on panels that will rise and fall on the stage. The costume designer, Omitayo "Wunmi" Olaiya uses colors for the costumes that reflect those in Lawrence's work; some of the objects from the paintings — such as a long spike — are stage props.

"I have used several paintings from the civil rights era"— when Lawrence painted them — "the lone figures' struggles," Ward says. In "Lovers" a couple is in bed while two demons torment them; in "Alice" a young girl in a pink dress — seen onstage and in a projection — is a pincushion for arrows. She represents the youngsters who were on the front lines of school integration in the South.

These are the jumping-off points for choreographic invention, catalysts for Ward and his co-creators to embolden modern dance, so the director has selected a wide range of contemporary music to express the characters' feelings, such as traditional African, hip hop, jazz, pop and folk. Ward uses, among other songs, Billie Holiday's famous "Strange Fruit" and "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess.

Using four choreographers means that sometimes hip-hop movement, lyrical athleticism or borrowings from classical ballet may collide from piece to piece or even within the same dance. The choreographers include Donald Byrd, Rennie Harris and Reggie Wilson. Byrd is the choreographer of The Color Purple, now on Broadway; his immensely likable work The Harlem Nutcracker played the Opera House several seasons back. Harris has pioneered dances with hip-hop music and has worked with the Ailey company. Venues in the United States, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean have been on Wilson's itinerary with his Fist and Heel Performance Group.

Each movement will feature a different number of dancers: For instance, Ward uses just four, but in the final piece, the entire company of 14 dancers performs. But Ward explains that energetic movement pulls together the evening. He says that the dancing was inspired by Lawrence's inspirational "Jacob's Ladder," enacting the Biblical story in which God reveals himself to Jacob.

Before the weekend performances, on Friday night, Ward will discuss the work at the Detroit Institute of Arts lecture hall along with DIA curator Valerie J. Mercer, as part of this month's Fine Arts Friday. This comes at the end of four days of workshops by Ward at four Detroit public schools on the theme of migration — combining students' personal history and a dance created with the students.

For a week, Lawrence, who died in 2000, will be reborn in Detroit schools, at the DIA, and onstage at the Opera House, a fitting memorial during Black History Month.


Color-ography runs 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 10, and 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 11, at Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, Detroit; 313-961-3500.

Michael H. Margolin writes about the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]