Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (Dayton, OH)

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Three male and two female dancers in white costumes against a blue background

Sheri “Sparkle” Williams portrays Harriet Tubman in Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s world premiere of J. Lawrence Paint (Harriet Tubman Remix) by choreographer Donald Byrd. Photo by Andy Snow

Since 1968, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) has prided itself on collecting and performing the works of African- American choreographers. In FY 2006, DCDC received an NEA Access to Excellence grant of $30,000 for a project that fits well within that mission. The company asked four contemporary black choreographers each to create a new dance inspired by the paintings of Jacob Lawrence, a Harlem Renaissance artist who depicted mid-century African- American life in bright, abstract scenes.

The result was “color-ography, n. the dances of Jacob Lawrence,” a diverse evening of modern dance. Donald Byrd, the Tony-nominated choreographer from The Color Purple, led off with J. Lawrence Paint (Harriet Tubman Remix), a compelling dance that conveys the travails of slavery and the strength of one strong but diminutive woman. Kevin Ward, the company’s recently retired artistic director, followed with Continuing Education, a piece inspired by Lawrence’s paintings from the Civil Rights era. Next up was Reggie Wilson, founder of Fist & Heel Performance Group, with a Caribbean-influenced We ain’t goin’ home but we finna to get the hell up outta here, based on Lawrence’s The Migration Series. The dance concluded with Reggie Harris’s funky, hip-hop Jacob’s Ladder.

“Color-ography” premiered in Dayton in February 2007. From southwest Ohio, the company launched a 20-city U.S. tour. In Seattle, critic Philippa Kiraly called the Tubman piece “magnificent” while in Pittsburgh, Jane Vranish praised the dancers’ “zealous, unremitting strength.” All told, the tour was seen by more than 20,000 people: nearly 5,000 school children attended matinees, 775 aspiring dancers took master classes with the company, and more than 15,000 people bought tickets for evening performances.

(From the NEA 2006 Annual Report)