JazzAntiqua – led by locally beloved and internationally regarded Jazz dance propagator, Pat Taylor – presented excerpts from its 2023 work, “Congo Square – Love. Libation. Liberation.” Featuring incredible music by Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, and Yacub Addy and Odadaa!, the company simulated and paid tribute to the actual Congo Square. Located in Armstrong Park in Louisiana, the square is an open space where the enslaved and free people of color gathered throughout the 19th century for meetings, open markets, and the African dance and drumming celebrations that played a substantial role in the development of jazz.” (https://www.neworleans.com/listing/congo-square/32200/)
The work begins with a commanding tambourine and spirited voice that disrupt the silence and reveal a soloist in a down pool of light. She is later joined by others who, by forming a large circle, embody a sense of community. With vivid color and vivacity, Taylor’s choreography – danced by Keisha Clark-Booth, Justin Edmonson, Daniel Moore, Alex Rasmussen, Chris Smith, Laura Ann Smyth, Maurice Watson (with Apprentices Sam Ballungay, Jazmin Gibson, Madeline Sharp, and Dinah Burnside) – bring us into the celebratory spirit of the African people and lead us on an incredibly fun journey of community, celebration, legacy, and cultural influence.
These artists were such a joy to watch. Coupled with the beaming smiles on their faces, fantastic musicality and performance, and the infectious music, it was hard to sit still. Dancers Samuel Ballungay, Chris Smith, Daniel Moore, Justin Edmonton, and were standouts who took our breath away with their commanding presence and beautiful articulation of the movement. Special Guest Jahanna Blunt wowed and rooted us with her African dance contribution. This gift was threaded throughout the work as if to embody the African blood and heritage that runs throughout the various expressions of dance. The performance featured Lighting Design by Leigh Allen and poetry by V. Kali.
The second half of the evening featured the virtuosic tap performers from Josette Wiggan Presents in their program titled, “On Solid Ground: A Celebration of Black Joy and Freedom in Our America.”
The piece opens with a camera panning across a field of young green wheat plants and transitions into a nostalgic slideshow—accompanied by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings 2004 rendition of “This Land is Your Land”—showcasing the beauty (and a few of the beauties) of black life.
The slideshow, designed by Josette Wiggan, ends with a quote by Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” As we read the quote, band members Tabari Lake (Electric Bass Guitar), Daniel Rotem (Tenor Saxophone), Malachi Whitson (Drums), and Michael Wooten (Piano) fill the stage and begin to softly freestyle.
While the band continues to play, four dancers fill the space in silhouette against a purple cyclorama. One at a time, light comes up on the dancers who each hit the floor with lightning fast 16th-note phrases. With original scores composed by Tabari Lake and Lighting Design by Leigh Allen, these four tappers were dynamic to watch. Two favorite memories of the performance were watching the musicians take in and admire (with fixed and studying gazes) the musicianship of these artists and the duet between Joseph and Josette Wiggan in “Redemption’s Grace.” Dressed in white, these two wowed from top to bottom. Wiggan roots her work in perpetuating African American vernacular dance, a mission that is clearly evident throughout her work. The duet, which seemed to begin in a 16th-note, flap-based sort of timestep, delighted audiences throughout the performance until, at one point, one section—anchored by paddle-n-rolls—drew the audience to their feet.
Despite occasional struggles staying in “the pocket” (particularly when trading bars with the musicians), these artists are dazzlingly extraordinary musicians, dancers, and performers who brought a perfect close to an incredible weekend of dance.
For more information about the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, please visit their website.
Written by Marlita Hill for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Josette Wiggan Presents – (L-R) Jason Rodgers, Josette Wiggan, Joseph Wiggan, Karissa Royster – Photo by Malcolm Ali