- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2007

Washington Reflections Dance Company’s contribution to the Capital Fringe Festival was a two-night stint at the Gala Hispanic Theatre teased as “The Beats, The Rhymes, The Rhythms: Hip Hop Meets Ballet on the Dance Floor.” The title notwithstanding, the piece that married raw urban aggression and classical technique was but one part — and not the standout — of an eclectic program offered Thursday, opening night.

Perhaps to build anticipation or possibly to pad the fragile work in progress with sturdier material, the beats and rhymes were relegated to the end of the show and were preceded by five more traditional pieces that drew mostly from ballet and modern dance vocabularies.

Opening the show was company member Derrick Spear’s “Tracing Backward,” an exercise in turned-out technique and flexed-footed diversion that boasted some interesting movement but felt a bit restrained.

Next, however, dancer Norman Tumpkin turned up the thermostat with a solo by choreographer Robert Battle called “Takademe,” set to an exhilarating a cappella riff by Sheila Chandra. The performer perfectly matched the singer’s freneticism, hitting nearly every one of her ticks and takas with a sprightly jump, a carefully calculated isolation or a series of Indian-dance-inspired moves. When Miss Chandra took a moment to “hmm” or breathe yoga-like breaths, Mr. Tumpkin took the audience there, too, striking a quirky pose or stopping for a little sun-salutation-style meditation.

A later solo, “ ’Round Midnight,” was one of the newest pieces on the bill, and while it served as a nice showcase for long-legged Kutia Jawara’s training and — whew — lovely lines, it was overshadowed by the previous one-man undertaking.

Surprisingly, the finest work of the evening came just before the second intermission in the form of “Suite Franklin,” a sumptuous exploration of Aretha Franklin tunes that was mildly reminiscent of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre’s “Shining Star,” the fellow black dance company’s funky and fabulous foray into the music of Earth, Wind & Fire.

In “Suite,” the stage glowed orange like sunset, illuminating the dancers’ similarly hued costumes: for the men, unitards, and for the women, short disco-esque dresses with a shock of teal over the derriere that evoked some sort of tropical bird.

The ladies preened and postured to the diva’s “You’re All I Need to Get By”; a graceful pair dealt with their complicated love in “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”; and the ensemble showed the audience “what it is, what it is” in a hip-shaking “Rock Steady” groove.

Buried in the middle of these segments was the program’s most expressive piece, an impassioned plea by dancer Sarah Ewing to the dude who done her wrong built around “I Never Loved a Man.” It’s difficult to go astray with these songs, but “Suite Franklin’s” strength didn’t just rest on its musical backing. It was accessible, fun, eclectic in movement styles, and undeniably funky. Perhaps most important, the dancers executed each shimmy and saunter with ease and complete confidence.

After this triumph, it was unfortunate to see the self-assurance flagging a bit in the hip-hop-meets-ballet project. Dancers were slightly out-of-sync and looked a bit sheepish when executing hip-hop-infused moves, although the piece itself had greater problems: mostly, an erratic assembly of short musical snippets and spoken word that prevented ideas from fully forming, and an overall disconnect with the aggressive spirit of the music.

Tackling some heavy issues, the piece stands to become an important one for artistic director Fabian Barnes’ five-year-old company, which prides itself on its unique black voice. But until then, the voice that speaks louder and prouder can be found in the ranks of the existing repertory.

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