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Donald Rosenberg  |  November 28, 2010

Eminent dancer-choreographers to grace the stage at Oberlin College

The numbers alone are impressive. Add up the years these dancer-choreographers have been active in the field, and the total comes to more than 200.

But their contributions go much deeper than figures. Separately, and now together, Germaine Acogny, Carmen de Lavallade, Dianne McIntyre, Bebe Miller and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar have risen to eminence in the world of contemporary dance.

Last year, they joined forces for the first time to perform a program of solo works, "Fly: Five First Ladies of Dance," at Long Island University's Brooklyn, N.Y., campus. The event was presented by 651 Arts, a Brooklyn-based organization devoted to the "awareness of and appreciation for contemporary performing arts and culture of the African diaspora."

This week, the five women travel to Oberlin College to give two performances under the auspices of DanceCleveland and the Oberlin College Theater and Dance Program. Although these women's lives have intertwined over the decades, either as colleagues or admirers, their dance version of a mutual admiration society only solidified last year.

"Once we got to our first dress rehearsal and we all sat around the theater and warmed up together and chatted, I said to myself, 'Oh, my goodness, I'm so humbled by this,' " said Miller, a faculty member at Ohio State University and founder of the dance company bearing her name, by phone from Columbus.

"It's a real privilege to be part of it. And I think it's an important thing to realize that we're still going on doing what we do on an individual basis. Our noses are not to the grindstone, but we're following our artwork."

The artwork represents a spectrum of dance perspectives. De Lavallade, who'll turn 80 in June, has performed with prominent dance companies, in movies and on Broadway -- sometimes with her husband, Geoffrey Holder -- and created works in many genres.

Acogny, known as "the mother of modern African dance," is artistic director of Compagnie Jant-Bi, the Senegalese male troupe that appeared in Cleveland in February 2008 with Urban Bush Women, the New York-based company led by Zollar.

The ties continue. Zollar devised some of her earliest works as a member of Sounds in Motion, the Harlem troupe led by Cleveland native McIntyre, who returned to her hometown several years ago.

McIntyre, who's choreographed works for Cleveland's Dancing Wheels, GroundWorks DanceTheater and Verb Ballets, exults in the opportunity to dance on the same stage with her "Fly" colleagues and to go solo.

"People in Cleveland haven't seen me dance since the 1980s," she said the other day. "I try to stay in good shape so I'm able to choreograph and teach. It's hard to choreograph if your body's not feeling vibrant inside."

Her solo, "If You Don't Know," is a tribute to late colleagues who were major influences on her artistry: Gwendolyn Nelson-Fleming, an actor and singer; St. Clair Bourne, a documentary film maker; and Lester Bowie, a composer and trumpeter.

Music is an essential element in McIntyre's creations. In "If You Don't Know," she dances to recordings of Bowie's music and an Olu Dara score performed live by pianist George Caldwell. Like McIntyre, Miller has spent most of her career basking in the team aspect of dance. A faculty member at OSU since 2000, she founded the Bebe Miller Company in 1985.

"As a choreographer, I generally don't make solos," she said. "I've only made a handful in my life. I'm built for a group process. I love to collaborate, love the feeling in the studio of a group of dancers sitting around talking."

Miller made her solo, "Rain," in 1989 after becoming enchanted with Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5. The soothing music almost totally goes against her artistic grain, a factor in the decision to challenge herself.

"I saw myself as someone who didn't dance to beautiful music," said Miller. "I was fierce. I asked a composer-friend, Hearn Gadbois, to approach this piece of music to build a way into it, so he took the opposite direction."

Gadbois' contribution consists of a screeching voice and percussion that give way to haunting Villa-Lobos. Miller wears a red-velvet dress and performs around a patch of green grass. The theme of internal struggle reflects her views as a woman and an African-American.

"It resonates as a journey home or a return or some logic we can't define," she said. "We understand the places of ease we reach."

Acogny's solo, "Untitled," portrays a powerful African female president and employs video and an original score. The New Orleans tradition of Second Line dancing and failed efforts to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina are the crux of Zollar's "Bring 'Em Home."

The only work not made specifically for the "Fly" program is de Lavallade's solo, "The Creation," which she and Holder devised in 1972 to a poem by James Weldon Johnson.

Audiences aren't the only beneficiaries of these solos. So are the women who perform them. The dancers make every effort to watch their distinguished colleagues from the wings.

"When we can, we do, so that feels lovely," said the exuberant Miller. "Seeing things over and over again, and seeing the small adjustments people make, and seeing it from the side and watching transformation happen, and looking forward to that particular moment -- I've always been drawn to that."

At the moment, the women are only scheduled to be drawn together after Oberlin for an engagement next week at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. McIntyre expects their bond to endure.

"We all complement each other," she said. "The work is what it is because we are all one. I know all of us will be kind of sad that we don't know the next time we'll be together. But we'll have that connection, and it will last forever."

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