Dance Fever

Karamu mounts a glorious, hot-footed tribute to an honored alumna.

It's hard to feel bad when you're dancing. From a gymnastically challenging ballet to back-and-forth swaying to "Moonlight Serenade," movement to music has a way of connecting us to the moment, to whomever we're sharing the floorboards with, and to ourselves. This is the epiphany a young African American woman named Marjorie Witt Johnson experienced as a student at Oberlin College back in 1930, and it changed her life forever. By combining her pedagogical curriculum in social work with a fast-blooming interest in modern dance, Johnson pursued her passion for integrating dance into social group dynamics, changing lives and creating some stunning choreography in the process.

Johnson's artistic home for 10 years of her long and fulfilling life (which continues to this day -- she's now in her 96th year) was Karamu House, where her story, Daughter of a Buffalo Soldier, the Life and Legacy of Marjorie Witt Johnson, is now being told, as a co-production with the Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre. Performed almost totally in movement, supported with small bursts of dialog and longer stretches of narration, this original dance-theater piece is almost entirely captivating. As conceived by director-choreographer Dianne McIntyre and Michael Medcalf, who is a lead performer and artistic director of CCDT, the first act traces Johnson's life from growing up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to the crowning appearance of her dance troupe, the Karamu Dancers, at the 1940 New York World's Fair. Then comes the second act, a fascinating reconstruction of the dances Johnson created some 65 years ago -- and they have lost none of their evocative energy or wit.

The evening begins with a brief glimpse of that World's Fair appearance, performed in a driving thunderstorm, and then flashes back to Johnson's chronological biography. Raised on the stark western plains, Marjorie was part of a loving family that proffered "a hands-on touch that whispered: 'You can be.'" Patriarch Henry Witt was one of the Buffalo Soldiers, the American Indian nickname for black army units established to handle some of the military's messier assignments in the late 1800s. Both the Johnson family and the Buffalo Soldiers come to life in dance sequences that exhibit a raw energy and a genuine feel for the time and place.

But once she treks off to faraway Oberlin, Johnson struggles academically -- until she takes a class in modern dance. Suddenly, the liberating leaps and spins seem to charge her batteries, and she begins to formulate her distinctive approach. But all is not pliés and pirouettes, as Johnson discovers at dinner one day, when a white girl suddenly realizes that she's "eating with a black nigger" and loses her lunch. (Apparently she didn't get the memo describing Oberlin, which had been welcoming women and blacks for the preceding century or so.) Armed with a fine education and a love of dance, Johnson begins working in Cleveland in 1935 at the Playhouse Settlement (renamed Karamu six years later).

This period of Johnson's life gives rise to some of the most entertaining scenes, as the new teacher tries to harness the energy of the young people she encounters. After they teach her their new steps, including "the Truck" and the time-step, Johnson (played at this point by elegant Kashanna Brown) demonstrates the unusual and frequently horizontal gyrations of modern dance. Their accurate reaction: "She's always falling down!" But the students are soon won over, Johnson explaining that this dance style can translate any human emotion or event into an artistic creation. An excellent example is "Bar-B-Que," a comical piece in which Natasha Colon and Venetia Whatley transform their raging hunger for a slab of ribs into a delightfully agonizing pas de deux, with Whatley finally chewing with gusto and picking her teeth with well-sated abandon.

There are so many interesting stories to tell -- Marjorie's marriage to famed actor Bill Johnson, her efforts to forge a professional dance company out of neophytes, her spotty relationship with Karamu's founders, Russell and Rowena Jelliffe -- that some potentially intriguing details get lost in the shuffle. And an extended recorded narration by Johnson herself, with the dancers largely sitting in rapt attention onstage, launches the second act with all the verve of a high school instructional video.

But once the re-created dances from the 1940s begin, the energy returns full-blast. An "African Dance" features fine footwork by Desmond Davis, James Dixon, Cedric Hall, and Daniel Issah Henderson. In "Tea Time," Tanya Gall is a humorously harried host, intimidated by her imperious guest, played by fur-draped Tracy Vogt. And Sarah Olson shows in "Fragments" that even a feeling of disconnectedness can become a dance.

"Karamu," a Swahili word, means "a place for joyful meeting," and this production fulfills that mission with style and buoyant good spirits, making it a most fitting tribute to Ms. Johnson.