Experience Matters

40-year-old Dayton Contemporary Dance Company In Cleveland

G.D. Harris has been dancing with the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company for 18 years, which means he's had a longer performing career than most dancers can count on. And that has landed him significant parts in a lot of works. He turns 40 in a couple of months and admits that it's a challenge dancing with 25-year-olds who have boundless energy. But when DCDC comes to Cleveland this week, as part of Tri-C's dance series at PlayHouseSquare, Harris has to find energy reserves. There are three dances on the program, and Harris has featured roles in every one of them.

During his long tenure, he's worked with a lot of choreographers who have contributed to the renowned contemporary dance troupe's repertoire. "Because the choreographers we've worked with have known me so long, they know me and they use me," he says. "It's very tiring, but the reward is the piece."

Harris took a break from rehearsal last week to talk about the Cleveland program, an overview of the company's movement styles and history (the company celebrates its 40th anniversary this year).

First is Donald Byrd's "J Lawrence Paint (Harriet Tubman Remix)," one of four pieces commissioned for the company's "Colorography" series, which premiered in 2007.

"Jacob Lawrence was an African-American painter renowned for how he depicted his subjects with vivid color,"says Harris. "His paintings are a vibrant look at social order. With their angles and juxtaposition of body shapes and shadows, there's a lot of movement in his paintings."

Byrd was particularly compelled by Lawrence's "Harriet Tubman" series, which depicts the migration of African Americans from the South. Harris says the dance piece uses tableaus from both the paintings - Harriet Tubman as a child painting, children cartwheeling at a beach - and less literal interpretations, like a representation of Tubman leading a group of people across land, which tells a story from her life. Music for the piece comes from several sources, including a remix of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," a piece by Sarah Vaughan and percussion samples.

The company reaches further back into its repertoire for the second work on the program, Dwight Rhoden's "Beyond a Cliff," a 1991 tribute to DCDC founding Artistic Director Jeraldyne Blunden. Rhoden was one of Blunden's dancers, a Dayton native she nurtured by allowing him to choreograph his own works for the company. He eventually moved to New York and started his own company. Harris says "Beyond a Cliff" is about taking chances. "It's not a safe piece," he says. "The concept is standing on the precipice of a cliff and taking that leap of faith."

The program's final piece is 1999's "Children of the Passage," a collaborative effort between Donald McKayle and Ronald K. Brown. In a way, the dance embodies something about DCDC, a company rooted in African-American herit-age but performs contemporary dance aiming for artistic express-ion. Set to New Orleans jazz by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the dance reminds people about African Americans' ancestral past, but with an eye to the future.

"Jeraldyne thought to bring McKayle and Brown together, because McKayle is a classic American choreographer and, at the time, Brown was just emerging," says Harris.

"She wanted to bring those two energies together. They're totally different kind of choreographers, but they fused their styles together. When you watch the dance, you have a hard time seeing the two separate styles. It is seamless."

Like most dance companies, DCDC struggles to keep doors open in a challenging economic environment. And being from Ohio - Dayton, no less - the company faces the additional challenge of showing the rest of the world that a company from the Midwest has something to say.

"A lot of people feel that a Midwest company has nothing to offer the world of dance," says Harris. "People think it's all about the coasts." But for 40 years, DCDC has excelled at keeping dancers involved with the company, developing careers in dance beyond the stage, building relationships with choreographers and commissioning work. Harris' own career is a good example.

As a teen, he attended the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Arts and Performing Arts (the Fame school) and trained at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. After earning a dance degree at Ohio State University, he joined DCDC, where his evolution continued.

"I am slowly transitioning from being primarily a dancer to being rehearsal coach and company manager," he says. "I'm starting to teach my parts to other people. We're good about finding what your callings are, so if you're a dancer, there are other things you can do. Jeraldyne trained people well."

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DAYTON CONTEMPORARY DANCE COMPANY Ohio Theatre PlayHouseSquare 8 p.m. Friday, October 10 Tickets $15-$30 Call 216.241.6000