Ursula Kendall Johnson, artistic director of 2 Kids and a Dream, premiered “SHE Created It” to a small but faithful audience last weekend at Tri-Cities High School’s Viola Turner Performing Arts Theater, in East Point. It brought together 10 female choreographers and a cast of female dancers of various ages, backgrounds and movement styles, with the vision of unity, empowerment and connection through choreographic storytelling. Johnson, whether knowingly or not, stumbled upon a greater mission when she co-founded 2 Kids and a Dream about a year ago: there is a shortage of professional female choreographic voices on the national stage, if not on Atlanta’s.
The next 2 Kids and a Dream production, “Wha Cha Don’t Wanna Tap Into on Friday,” will be a free, site-specific show performed at Underground Atlanta on Friday, September 23 at 7 p.m., part of the “Elevate: Art Above Underground” public art project.
In “SHE Created It,” the movement played itself out through a series of stories danced as solos, duets and trios that left me wanting more, given the large pool of well-trained and available female dancers. I kept yearning for the “all skate” moment of female empowerment that I had set myself up for.
Johnson assembled veterans such as Andrea M. Price, who has been teaching and making dance professionally for 20 years, with eager high school choreographers taking a first swing at the craft. Although the mixture of skill levels gave a disjointed feeling to the concert’s flow and professional sheen, the feeling of sisterhood and purpose finally brought cohesion.
Price, who runs one of the largest, most successful dance studios for children in metro Atlanta, showcased her new tap-dancing company, called Progressions. Both Price’s sassy tap solo “Snap” and her spirited trio “Apartheid” were well choreographed and expertly performed.
In Johnson’s intriguing and skilled solo “This Is My Story,” a swarm of words, projected against the cyclorama, repeated and contrasted with a taped monologue of her voice. With her sharp, seasoned technique, she made expert use of the space. All elements meshed well to take the viewer spiraling through a journey of heady issues: insecurity, body politics and Johnson’s search for her identity as a dancer and a woman.
CiCi Kelley (at left), a hip-hop diva and the artistic director of Phases of Love, brought a daringly different personal dimension to the stage. A coach on MTV’s “Made” and equally comfortable behind such artists as Toni Braxton and Beyoncé, she reminded the audience where she began with a contemporary solo set on dancer Monique. Kelley appeared wrapped only in a purple silk swag, fully exposing her eight-months-pregnant belly. She sat downstage right as Monique embodied the movement and feeling of a less pregnant Kelley. A video progression of Kelley’s life played on the screen behind. Although at times the focus was split among the three elements, Kelley’s sense of gratitude to her mother, her excitement to be a new mother and her deep emotion were conveyed to the audience with help from singer-songwriter Regina Belle’s version of “If I Could.”
“Libera Me,” choreographed by Tianna Pourciau Sykes and set to music of the same title, explored themes of bondage. The piece began with two dancers, Sykes and Larae Phillips, seated wearing straitjackets. As it progressed through Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and returned to Goldenthal’s “Libera Me,” themes of breaking bonds, struggles with freedom and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit were clearly shown.
Joanna Brooks, no stranger to the Atlanta dance stage, presented a sophisticated duet, “But a Whimper,” to Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.” The piece opened with one dancer lying on the floor and the other standing with feet connected. The two walked in sync as if the dancer on the floor were a reflection of the standing figure. Brooks used complex floor work with shadow and silhouette to convey a sense of palpable tension.
But the evening’s highlight was “Hell’s Bells,” a solo by Ariana Groover, set to music of the same title performed by Cary Ann Hearst. Groover set the scene with three chairs facing in various directions, and the work’s progression carried her back and forth among the chairs as though they were stations in her life. The downstage right chair held a pink teddy bear, evoking childhood, while the others gave clues of more mature phases in her journey. Groover spoke of how being hurt by someone can cause a chain reaction that has ripple effects throughout one’s life. She danced with abandon and at times with near-vulgarity. Technical excitement and emotional flow dotted the work. After the performance, Groover revealed to the audience that she has dealt with multiple surgeries and tumors that caused her pain during the performance, made bearable only by her passion to dance.
Overall, “SHE Created It” left me with the feeling that a necessary journey had begun. I am interested to see whether Johnson can deliver these women to their desired destination, and continue with the struggle in Atlanta that female choreographers are waging nationally to reach the level of success that their male counterparts have attained.