Portraying the African-American Diaspora in Modern Dance


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DDT’s Dorcas Mba, center, and Justin Sharlman continue a noble dance tradition.

Photo by Edward Miller

Oakland’s Dimensions Dance Theater, likely the oldest African American dance troupe on the West Coast, is entering a second generation of women leaders with Tanya L. Tigner among others. They were mostly trained by company co-founder Deborah Vaughan, who had encountered Haitian and modern dance at San Francisco’s recreation department, under the renowned Ruth Beckford. So today’s DDT follows a noble tradition with a repertoire that is grounded in traditional African dance and yet welcomes innovation. As Dimensions is entering a new era, it fortunately looks like the company will continue the road it embarked on when Vaughan pioneered this kind of programming.

So perhaps it’s appropriate for this grounded-in-community company to include in this year’s fall program two pieces that look at the ongoing journey of the African-American diaspora in this country. Both works will be shown in excerpt, with the complete choreographies scheduled for Dimensions’ 45th anniversary in April 2018.

Andrea V. Lee’s Ain’t No Turning Back is examining the noble history of Harriet Tubman who may be best known as a leader for the underground railway, but who also served as scout and spy for the Union Army. Her piece will end in a Ghanian celebration, Tubman’s place of origin.

Tigner, who recently choreographed Marcus Garvey’s play Black Odyssey, is examining a different kind of enslavement, one in which escape is often difficult if not impossible. We all know about the homeless—thousands of them who walk our cities at night, tens of thousands who scrounge around the landfills of the world’s mega cities, and by now, hundreds of thousands who risk their lives in leaky boats and behind barbed wire to escape untenable lives. Yes, we know these ever so uncomfortable facts of life, but Tigner, in this yet unnamed piece, asks us to look beyond our own fears, misconceptions, and prejudices.

“It’s the only way,” she said, “to mend cultural insensitivity about homeless life.”

The audience will be invited for a post-performance feedback session with the artists. Dimensions Dance Theater, Oct. 21, 8 p.m., $15-$20, Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, 1428 Alice St., Oakland, Eventbrite.com. 

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