Arts Desk

A Stepping Interpretation of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, at the Atlas Tonight

It seems like a perfect fit. Take Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, a set of 60 paintings depicting African Americans’ flight to the big cities of the north prior to World War II, half of which are housed at the Phillips Collection. Combine it with Step Afrika!, a DC-based dance company that has honed and built upon a traditional African American dance form, stepping, and now performs it around the world. The result is “The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence,” a performance that’s a collaboration between the Phillips Collection and Step Afrika! It opens tonight at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE.

When I arrived at the Atlas last night to talk with Step Afrika!’s director, Brian Williams, he was still deep in the rehearsal process, giving notes on placement and sound cues to weary dancers and a crew scrambling to finish up. Williams’ composure as he delivered his instructions was impressive; despite taking on a daunting project about to open for a two-week run, he was cool, calm, and completely in charge. When we sat down to talk, he was the same guy, except a little more relaxed and charming.

Washington City Paper: Is this a big deal?

Brian Williams: Oh yes. This is the biggest production in our 17-year history. We’ve never built a set, hired a sound designer, or used audio in the middle of a performance. It’s a lot of new.

WCP: How did this collaboration between you and the Phillips happen?

BC: I’d been asked to judge a synchronized swimming event, an artistic type of thing, with Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips. I’d wanted to do something with visual art, and see what they think of our art. I’d seen Jacob Lawrence and knew our work would resonate with that, and so we started talking about it. That was August 2010.

WCP: And then what?

BC: I’ve been studying the great migration intensely over the last year, getting familiar with the changes, but we started intensely rehearsing about six months ago. This was in the midst of touring: we have 11 artists that are on an 11-month contract, and we tour excessively; we were in about 11 countries this past year. But I was going to New York, to the Schomburg [the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture, where Lawrence himself did much of the research that led to the Great Migration series]. It has tremendous resources, and I probably looked at some of the same things he did.

WCP: What kind of themes inspired you?

BC: We’re dealing with the theme of moving, why African Americans moved north. In the first half, we explore what life was like for African Americans in the south, using drumming, music, and dance. Drumming was one of the only things they were allowed as slaves. Then in the second half, we start to move north. It’s more literal, with images of the north, things they say, ideas of promise. In this performance, they’re all heading towards Chicago.

WCP: Was it intimidating to do a project based on Lawrence’s works?

BC: It was extremely intimidating. At first it seemed like a perfect fit, but he’s a legendary artist and it’s a little humbling. We wanted to give it its proper respect, as much about his work as our dance. That allows us to experience our work differently: this is more character driven than what we usually do. Percussive dance is more about movement and sound; it’s usually about being yourself while dancing. But this is role playing, using a folkloric form to be interpretive. So the dancers might be thinking, “I am this woman in the painting” or “I am a 30 year old guy just arrived in Chicago, bag in hand.”

WCP: So you’ll be performing for two weeks? That’s unusual for dance in DC.

BC: Yes, we get a two week run. It’s definitely a big deal. This is about showing a new model for dance, not just two nights [of performances]. It gives our audience more choice.

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