Mr. TOL E RAncE
, a new piece of dance-theater from choreographer Camille A. Brown
, clocks in at only 45 minutes. But with its frenzied pace, repetitive movements and sometimes cluttered staging, the work feels much longer. Receiving its West Coast debut as part of White Bird’s Uncaged series, Mr. TOL E RAncE
means terribly well. Using stylistic tropes and clichés of minstrelsy, it aims to investigate contemporary stereotypes of African-Americans. Brown and her six dancers certainly accomplish this—but they do so in the piece’s first 15 minutes. After that, the overblown grins and the exaggeratedly festive choreography grow tiresome.
In part inspired by Spike Lee’s controversial film Bamboozled
, Mr. TOL E RAncE
makes extensive use of video projection, occasionally to bold effect. The work opens with archival footage of early minstrel shows, and as the dancers enter, their movements mirror those of the performers onscreen. Alternately languorous and sharp, there’s a focus to the early choreography that lapses as the dancers’ steps grow faster and the live piano music more frenetic. This rhythmic quality can be entrancing, but it also feels limiting: The constrained movement vocabulary, so often confined to minstrel-show mimicry, stifles the obvious skills and dynamism of Brown and her dancers.
As the performance progresses, title cards of various sitcoms (Diff’rent Strokes, The Jeffersons, Good Times) flash across the backdrop. At one oddly amateurish point, the seven performers sing the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at an almost intelligible pace. Later, in a profanity-fueled “game show,” they compete for nominations as best “badass Negro” or best Jezebel. The interactions among the performers speak to the relationship between social gathering and dance, but the overly sexualized choreography—crotch grabbing, ass slapping—struck me as painfully obvious. “May the best coon win!” Brown shouts at the end of the awards spoof.
In the talkback that followed last night’s performance (each show will be followed by a conversation between performers and audience members), dancer Mayte Natalio noted that “we don’t want to beat you over the head.” She went on: “This is not a PBS special.” True: Mr. TOL E RAncE does not deliver a systematic history lesson on minstrelsy or a treatise on stereotypical depictions of blacks in popular culture. But it veers heavily toward the brash rather than the subtle, even as the performers inject it with intermittent bursts of effective humor. And while it did unsettle—as good performance should—it also left me feeling as if I’d just watched a collection of music videos and comedy sketches, rather than a coherent and unified program.
SEE IT: Camille A. Brown & Dancers at Lincoln Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave., 245-1600, whitebird.org
. 8 pm Friday-Saturday, Dec. 7-8. $20-$30.