- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Among the celebrations of Rosa Parks’ life over the past few days, one of the most unusual was a dance called, simply, “Rosa.”

By coincidence, the work was already scheduled for Washington Reflections Dance Company’s performance at the Lincoln Theatre the evening before Miss Parks laid in state at the Capitol Rotunda.

Life and art were poignantly intermixed that night.

“Rosa,” created in 1990 by Billy Wilson as a direct tribute to the quiet heroism of this remarkable woman, had a special resonance last weekend that prompted a spontaneous outburst of applause from the audience as the curtain rose.

The simplicity of the staging was one of its most striking elements. Two chairs at the back of the stage, side by side, faced the audience. In one, a white woman sat reading a newspaper, looking up with a hostile air as a figure in a red dress approached the other chair.

The dance that followed was emotional, with the Rosa figure moving with outstretched arms and repeated falls to the floor, set to vibrant vocals by Roberta Flack and danced with authority by Pascha Barnwell. The movements were too generic and decorative to fully capture the subject matter — more gut-wrenching Martha Graham-type contractions would have been appropriate. Still, a stark fact remained: Someone was sitting complacently in one chair while Rosa was rejected. The piece ended emphatically as Miss Barnwell squared her shoulders and, with a decisive, defiant flourish of her skirt, sat down on the empty chair.

This timely dance was part of a well-chosen program from the young company, founded and directed by Fabian Barnes. The evening was the third sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society in a welcome new venture of commissioning and presenting local dance groups.

The Washington Reflections world premiere, “Dance Forever,” turned out to be choreographically the weakest work on the program, although it sparkled with the cliche of a mirrored ball hanging above the dancers, creating light patterns all over the stage and auditorium.

Put together jointly by Mr. Barnes, Dean Anderson and Derrick Spears, “Dance Forever” was a good-natured, lively look at voguing and club dancing, forms that have inspired other choreographers. The dancing, however, was overshadowed by glittering light effects.

The rest of the works ranged from the lush Oriental movements of “Tik-kit” to a searing retelling of the Medea legend in Whitney Hunter’s “Crossed.”

The evening was a major step forward for the company. The dancers have never looked better.

The WPAS project offers local choreographers funds to create full theatrical staging rather than the bare-bones look most have to settle for. The other two programs it sponsored last month turned out to be, taken together, a case study of what works and what doesn’t.

To begin with the latter, Jane Jerardi, a young performance artist, has been working on a small scale, mostly in solo performances. Given this background, she was a strange choice for WPAS’ offer of unfamiliar riches. She squandered her resources on interminable grainy videos of nothing much, commissioned an unfulfilling score and — more multimedia — threw in a bunch of crocheted yarn dragged across the stage.

All this was filler for a program that finally produced 20 minutes or so of dancing, centered on the not-very-inspiring idea that we sometimes waste time in the search for efficiency.

Much more original and impressive was WPAS’ other commission, of Ed Tyler’s “Sanctuary.” Mr. Tyler creates a bleak world that offers little comfort or refuge. The elaborate, surreal settings and costumes are an integral part of the strange, evocative atmosphere of his work. The dance was provocative, rigorous and demanding of both its audience and its dancers — who included Mr. Tyler and six strong, remarkably dedicated women. A bracing, invigorating evening in the theater and a new work that is a sterling addition to the Washington dance scene.

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