Dance Canvas 2023 performance series celebrates Atlanta voices

Credit: Richard Calmes

Credit: Richard Calmes

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

What does it mean to celebrate from the core of your being? What memories must be uncovered? What stories are revealed?

Choreographers chosen for Dance Canvas’ 15th anniversary season asked these and other questions as they looked at life, especially the trials of the past three years, through a lens of celebration.

This year’s production, which took place last weekend at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech, included two evenings of works by eight dance-makers as part of its Choreographer Career Development Initiative. Additionally, a screening featuring new dance films by Anicka Austin, Marley Carter and Jodie Jernigan kicked off the series.

A diverse audience filled the theater Saturday evening as the performance shed light on stories that were often linked to family, community and personal identity. Cultural influences ranged from African to Filipino traditions and from ballet to House dancing to Chinese classical dance in a celebration of mostly Atlanta talent and Atlanta voices that rarely are given a platform to show their work.

Each of the evening’s choreographic voices resonated with unique tones as part of Atlanta’s vibrant cultural expression.

Before each piece began, a video introduced the work’s choreographer, who described their inspiration and creative approach.

Billy J. Hawkains III’s “Imago” was a harbinger of themes that reappeared throughout the evening. (Disclosure: Hawkains is on the dance faculty of Kennesaw State University, where Perry teaches.) Hawkains said in his video interview Saturday that while he was creating the piece, he was thinking of a late uncle, a musician, whose experiences reflected “the trials and tribulations of being Black in America.”

“Imago” confronts images and expectations that society projects on African Americans, Hawkains said. A lifeless person lying prostrate, for example, may be part of their collective experience, but such images shouldn’t limit the individual’s quest to fully realize their uniqueness.

The piece unfolded as if removing layers of personae, acknowledging past trauma and moving forward with self-knowledge and resolve. Five dancers appeared, fully covered in black hoodie jackets, sweatpants and dimly visible masks. Their stillness, and extreme slow motion movements were punctuated by sudden weightless reaches forward and deep lunges. They gradually removed the coverings, exposing their faces and bodies, clothed in form-fitting black garments. To tranquil strains of muffled saxophone and guitar, they dropped their upper bodies forward, grounding in sensation, then rose together, exhaling as they arched upward, as if releasing a burden.

At one point, George Chavez broke from the group, whirled and fell prostrate on the floor. He arched stiffly on his side, convulsing. The four others picked up this motif, as if it were resonating through each individual in the community in order to be acknowledged and released. They stood facing profile, in a resolute parallel stance, one hand clasped beside the hip, the other pointing forward, with resolve to continue the journey.

Credit: Richard Calmes

Credit: Richard Calmes

Gwynn Root Wolford’s “Garden of Rift” followed “Imago.” The contemporary ballet piece explored relationships among two men and three women on stage, and between Wolford’s choreography and her husband Trevor Wolford’s gently driving music composition based on themes by J.S. Bach.

Sharply focused yet ever-changing partnering configurations often descended into the pushes and pulls of conflict, only to rise into sweeping extensions and exultant lifts.

With “SueSabel (a dance with my ancestors),” choreographer Jacquelyn Pritz sought to better understand her Filipino-American identity. Named in honor of Pritz’s Filipino grandmothers, the work expressed her healing journey, as she reconnected with her ancestral lineage and with an extended family that lives in the Philippines today.

A lone figure in brown encountered four women clad in ivory and light earth tones. Together, their whirling suspensions combined with fluid floor work and risky weight sharing to create a joyous sense of support and interconnection.

Whitney Jackson’s solo “Jubilant of You” explored the love, compassion and strength that bring joy to Black women. Inspired by her mother, grandmothers and sisters, Jackson sought to break down perceptions of Black women as having a kind of hard strength, to get to a more positive strength that’s grounded in love.

Credit: Richard Calmes

Credit: Richard Calmes

Two spotlights cast pools of light on a red cyclorama as dancer Charray Helton articulated an ongoing pulse with her spine, hips and shoulders. Sound included a conversation among Black women talking about joy, followed by excerpts from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.” Effervescent jazz music underscored Helton’s broad extensions and sweeping turns in an expression of strength, beauty and unfettered joy.

Xiang Xu, a choreographer from China who teaches at Temple University, brought a standout duet, “XY,” which New York-based dancers Gabrielle DiNizo and Jonathan Colafrancesco performed with nuance and technical fluency. The highly polished duet featured one male and one female dancer, perhaps representing two sides of a coin, or a dualistic view of the world.

Xiang’s style blended postures and detailed gestures found in traditional Chinese dancing with the fleet fluency of Gaga methods, while enriching the duet with Middle Eastern and Italian music influences. In a memorable section, music overlaid a high-pitched frenetic rhythm with a soft piano melody recalling Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” as the pair moved in and out of a trench coat like two aspects of the same person in a struggle to coexist.

Lashonda Johnson’s “From The Ground Up” was inspired by a desire to celebrate women in her family lineage, while creating space in her life for community and dancing. Breathing sounds, almost mechanistic, drove the four women on stage as they moved with power and emotion to composer Michael Wall’s “War Machines” and “43214.” This gave way to an ambient driving pulse as the four women leapt, fell and embraced one another in ever changing configurations.

Andre Lumpkin’s “Body Talk,” a highlight of the evening, was the choreographer’s “love letter to House music and dancing.” Lumpkin drew inspiration from Archie Burnett, a.k.a. the Grandfather of the House of Ninja, a collective of movement artists who contributed significantly to the development of Vogue Dance.

These club scenes have long been safe spaces for LGBTQ individuals, particularly Black and Latin American men, to exist and express themselves authentically. The piece felt like an explosion of kinetic energy, but it was not without pain. At one point amid a club scene, a single female began violently shaking, perhaps broken inside. The others surrounded her, supporting her until she was calm. Sparkly outfits and a disco ball upped the energy level, and this carried the group to a heightened state of exuberance, capturing the spirit of joy, acceptance and healing in a pure, beautiful and honest way.

On the evening of March 25, 2019, Akeem Edwards was preparing to go on stage to dance in the final work in a Dance Canvas annual performance series when he received a phone call with news that his mother, Jacqueline Edwards, had died. Last Saturday, exactly four years later, Edwards presented a powerful and poignant tribute to his mother titled “Leading with Love.”

Sounds of a heartbeat, and a driving polyrhythmic soundscape underscored what seemed to be a flood of memories reflecting facets of a complex relationship between a mother and her adult son, magnificently danced by AC Wilson. Surrounded by a loving and supportive community, the matriarch ultimately ascended.

Dance Canvas’ work in the community lifts up artists and audiences in so many ways — creating a mirror for audiences to see themselves and people with whom they share this city. The integrity of the works is remarkable. In their quest to express authentic joy, these artists have uncovered stories and voices that help create a collective identity for Atlanta that’s true to who we are today.


Cynthia Bond Perry has covered dance for ArtsATL since the website was founded in 2009. One of the most respected dance writers in the Southeast, she also contributes to Dance Magazine, Dance International and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has an M.F.A. in narrative media writing from the University of Georgia.

Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL


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