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Dean Moss and company explore the legacy of white abolitionist in 'johnbrown'

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Dean Moss and company in 'johnbrown'

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The Kelly Strayhorn Theater welcomed New York choreographer, Dean Moss, last week, hosting the company’s residency as part of the East Liberty Live series. The week culminated in a work-in-progress showing of johnbrown Friday night.

The sixty-minute piece will premiere in full at The Kitchen (NYC) this October, on the 150th anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment: America’s abolishment of slavery. Although the work is about Moss’s own contemporary practice of activism, it is largely inspired by the early 1800s white abolitionist, John Brown.

Moss thinks of the choreography as a “meditation” on Brown’s legacy, rather than a narrative of Brown’s life. Most of the images in the piece were unspecific, yet imaginative. Using very little traditional dance, and many pedestrian movements, Moss created a through-line of struggle and denigration.

A few sections stood out in particular. In one moment, Moss and a female dancer manipulated large silvery boards that reflected like mirrors. The two moved in and around them, hopped over them, and spun them above their heads. While they grappled with their own images, the sound system played text about what it means to be black.

Later, in a section called “The Game,” each dancer began beating Moss with their own mirror. The image of several white people ganging up on an African-American man was haunting. Moss said this moment brought about many thoughts, most often lynchings and the Rodney King tragedy.

In another part, equally frightening but more subtly violent, one male dancer slapped Moss repeatedly in the chest. Moss backed away each time. Eventually, though, he was knocked onto the ground.

Frenetic string music accompanied a female trio of gestures and abrupt stomping. A camera projected images of the dancers live on the back screen. Up close, we could see their hardened expressions. Eventually, they slathered a black paint-like substance onto each other’s bodies, reminiscent of the offensive 19th century blackface.

Throughout the show, one woman entered and exited with slow, adagio ballet phrases, separated from the rest of the cast by movement and by attitude. While watching her, an air of white privilege came to mind.

Of Moss’s part in the piece, he said he didn’t want to play a “victim.” He hoped to make work that satisfied himself but didn’t “lose the audience.” Although some sections had more clarity than others, I never felt lost. Without spoon-feeding the audience, there was always something to consider, something to ponder.

Even at the risk of becoming dramatic, the performers could have gone a bit farther in the more physically forceful sections, to evoke stronger emotion from the viewers. While I appreciated Moss not hitting us over the head with drama, I craved more intensity from the cast.

As Janera Solomon, director of the Kelly Strayhorn, explained, the residency is an opportunity for artists to “explore ideas and take risks.” Similarly, there is a saying in the performing arts that pulling back is easier than not going far enough. In the finished version of johnbrown, I hope the group pushes even more out of their comfort zones, in turn pushing the audience to think more openly about the always relevant issues of race in America.

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