“I’m a man. I’m black. I’m queer. I’m skinny. I’m awkward.” Anthony Williams, a dancer and teacher in Pittsburgh, began his choreographic process by reflecting on himself. He chose labels that described him, then researched some of those labels for a more universal look at what it means to be a black man in our society.
Loving Black, an all-male quartet, premiered Friday night at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy Studios. As part of the “Fresh Works” series, Williams was given 80 hours of studio time, along with technical support, to create a work-in-progress.
The dance began in darkness with the sound of the infamous Willie Lynch speech given in 1712. Lynch disturbingly gave instructions on how to control one’s slaves by exaggerating their physical differences and turning them against each other. In one haunting line, Lynch wrote, “I have outlined a number of differences among the slaves, and I take these differences and make them bigger. I use fear, distrust, and envy for control purposes.”
As the lights came up, the four dancers did exactly the opposite. Each performer moved into the same strong standing position. They proceeded into a bold unison phrase that highlighted their similarities and brought them together.
Eventually, the dancers split into duets. In one meaningful moment, Jovan Sharp repeatedly pushed off the embrace of Michael Bishop. The section highlighted Williams’ interest in how black men relate to each other physically. Here, we heard the words of poet and speaker, Mark Gonzales. “As with most men, it is easier for me to give hugs than to accept them.” Sharp and Bishop finally embraced.
Jean-Paul Weaver entered and the three dancers continued in a trio of partnering that deftly showed off their strength and fluidity. That culminated into a phrase of “stepping,” a rhythmic style with African roots that uses stomping and clapping. The men laughed, enjoying themselves.
When Williams entered, the performers turned away in rejection. Williams soloed in and around them, as if trying to be part of the group. The three others gradually joined in behind him, but from a distance. They ultimately came together for a technical section of phrase-work with long lines and challenging balances high on their toes.
The piece ended on a celebratory note. With gymnastic movement, the performers rolled into and out of the floor with ease. They pressed into handstands only to rise to their feet again. The luxurious extension through their bodies signified inclusion. Just before the lights went out, they fell onto their backs in exasperated joy.
Overall, Williams choreographed what he intended. One of his goals, he said, was to “find our similarities as black men, and pick each other up.” The show was certainly uplifting; audience members rose to their feet, and nearly everyone stayed in the theater for a gratifying question and answer session. As a work-in-progress, my hope is for the piece to be fully fleshed out and lengthened, to dive deeper into the important questions Williams posed.