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Friday, March 18, 2011

Review: Flyin' West

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  • Kris Roberts
The playwright Pearl Cleage chose a hopeful, resonant historical moment to write about in her 1992 play Flyin' West. The work tells the story of African-American homesteaders' arrival in the western prairie town of Nicodemus in the late 19th century. In the years after the civil war, black people, many of them former slaves, left the deplorable conditions in the South and settled in the Western states. The play examines these pioneers' drive for autonomy, their often-conflicting needs for community and independence, and their brave use of geographic space (the West was like the edge of the known world) to distance themselves from a painful and degrading past. Something of the same celebratory spirit of honoring these pioneers also motivates the new dance production Flyin' West, based on Cleage's play and now on stage at Georgia Tech's Ferst Center for the Arts.

Produced by Ballethnic, the Atlanta-based company founded in 1990 by husband and wife team Nena Gilreath and Waverly T. Lucas, the work opens with a group piece depicting slavery. It's significant to open with this because, not only does it give the audience a sense of where the characters come from, but it also gives a sense of the difficulty that's in store for them: the struggle to extract themselves from the degradations and humiliations of slavery. Even from hundreds of miles away, with their enslavement a mere memory, dealing with the scars proves to be an enormous and life-long struggle for some of the characters. Choreographer Lucas has a real facility for group composition. It's a huge company—sometimes it seemed like there were 75 people on stage!—and the dancers ranged from professional adults to kids under 10, but groupings, even large ones, remained strongly composed, quick, kaleidoscopic, rhythmic, inventive.

Narration was provided by Catharine Whiteman and Bradley Candie, and although I'm usually not a fan of spoken narration over dance, I thought it was well-integrated here. They both have beautiful speaking voices and injected a sense of drama and humor into the narrative. Nonetheless, I still ended up preferring the more abstract elements of the story-telling: the use of poems, even contemporary ones, to highlight the inner world of the characters worked especially well. I was less a fan of the more literal narrative aspects of the show. The characters often seemed weighted down by costumes, and though the skeletal cabin set was beautiful, dancers too often ended up sitting at its central table rather than moving about more freely.

Nonetheless, it's a show with dancing at its center, and the dancing remained strong throughout the evening. I loved the use of dancers en pointe, often alternating en pointe movement with more rhythmic, weighty, soul-inflected movements, feet fully and firmly on the ground. It was a combination that seemed to perfectly capture the world of Flyin' West—the aspirational hope for autonomy, which was simultaneously instigated by and weighted down by a painful past. In the end, I would have liked to have seen far more of the abstract work, and far less of the literal, narrative story, which I felt was hard to follow and relied too heavily on spoken word or projected imagery. Things got a little slow and hard for me to follow in the second act (a synopsis in the program would help enormously). Nonetheless, I felt that Flyin' West was good, strong, important creative work from one of Atlanta's great local companies.

Flyin' West plays at the Ferst Center through March 20. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit Ballethnic or call (404) 762-1416.

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