No singer has ever felt more American than Sam Cooke. His music drew from genres designed by African-Americans to reflect their experience: blues, soul, gospel, rock and roll. Cooke made his sonic amalgam palatable to a mainstream audience through sheer force of talent, and by shaking hands with styles and sounds popular with white listeners. Like all American heroes, he was fearless. He worked in fissile material, and his art was a cross-cultural fusion.
Something similar might be said about photographer Gordon Parks. His shots combined classical composition with a spontaneity that could only have been harnessed by someone who was self-taught. Parks’s photos influenced every shutterbug and auteur who followed him.
The dancers at Nimbus (329 Warren Street) can probably relate to both artists. When they put on a show, they also split the difference between traditionalism and modernism — and like Sam Cooke, they do it with an ingratiating smile. A Nimbus piece can pivot from ballet to Broadway to Beyoncé in a few beats. Because their dancers have internalized and synthesized these styles, their performances never feel like pastiche. The seams of what they’re stitching together are rarely visible. In their commitment to amalgamation that borders on mongrelization, they’re deeply American. And as their latest show demonstrates, the more American Nimbus gets, the better they do.
“The New Americana,” which’ll run tonight and tomorrow 8 p.m. ($25-$35; visit www.nimbusdance.org), tucks three pieces into a larger work that lasts a pleasant hour and a quarter. Two of those segments are entertaining, and one of them is an absolute revelation. All of them are cheesy at times, but it’s good old American cheese you’re tasting, so it’s hard to see anybody but the most ardent pessimist taking offense.
The revelatory piece is the one that has no business working at all: “The New Tide,” an attempt to put Gordon Parks’s famous photographs in motion, scored by popular Sam Cooke songs. What could have been a jukebox musical or an exercise in hagiography was instead a straight-up joy, thanks to vibrant and consistently creative choreography by Dawn Marie Bazemore and the ingenuity of the Nimbus crew, who executed steps that suggested raucous theater, praise dancing in church aisles, and some fantastic imaginary sock hop where all the flirty teenagers know exactly how to get down.
The irreducible might of the music helped, too. Notably, Bazemore didn’t just select the hits. She gave us Cooke at his grittiest and most spiritual, Cooke the soul shouter, Cooke in mid-interview, and in one memorable sequence, Cooke and a choir, nearly a cappella. These songs played as Parks’s photos, many snapped to call the viewer’s attention to racial and class injustice, were projected on screens large and small. Parks took dazzling fashion shots of beautiful women in amazing outfits, too, and the show takes pains to remind us that glamour was an important part of his legacy and our American heritage. As Cooke led the Soul Stirrers through “Jesus Gave Me Water,” a trio of sharp-dressed Nimbus dancers in red executed a giddy routine that radiates camaraderie, pulling on each other’s arms, spinning about the stage like Fifth Avenue shoppers on a spree. The contrast between the devotional music and the terrestrial dancing cut straight to the heart of the paradox of Sam Cooke’s artistry, and Gordon Parks’s, too, and maybe the nation’s as well.
Elsewhere, a reverent Parks crowd scene filled with behatted spectators provided an ideal backdrop for “Wonderful World,” a collective expression of physical yearning and straining at imaginary bonds fit “A Change Is Gonna Come” like a sign fits a hand at a protest, and a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a cello segued into a marvelously moving group scene that amplified the smoldering passion of “Bring It on Home to Me.” Blown-up images of Parks photographs on the black box video screens never overwhelmed the dancers, imposing and eye-catching though they were. Instead, they felt like gateways into a realm of pure American iconography. A sequence with a janitor’s mop could have been mawkish. Instead, it was executed with such delight that it made its points about inequality and unfair labor without ever stooping to melodrama.
None of this would work without the Nimbus dancers, who never seemed unsure about what they were doing, even when the ideas were rocketing around the black box at jet speed. Foremost among them was the firestarter Mika Greene, who epitomizes the stylistic plasticity of the Nimbus approach: one moment, she’s avant garde, the next she’s burlesque, and the next after that she’s straight out of a Nineties R&B video. She does it all with grace that evens her influences out into a continuum of self-expression through movement. Greene is a commanding presence in “The New Tide,” but other dancers distinguished themselves, too, including the absurdly adorable Tyler Choquette, who presents as the embodiment of laughter, and Xavier Alexander, a storyteller in motion, who can communicate bewilderment with a turn of his hand, aggression with a tiny elevation of his chin, and authority with a single heavy step.
Alexander was one of two performers in Darshan Singh Bhuller’s “Dew Point 68,” a spooky but somewhat obvious piece that incorporated visual references to Westerns, romances, and Vietnam war movies, and ascribed to American existence a heaviness that Bazemore wisely refused to countenance. He paired with the other Nimbus principal who appeared in all three pieces — Leighann Curd, whose dancing shivered with anxiety all night. Curd, who got a heck of a workout in “The New Americana,” let herself be possessed by the stormy spirit of the open prairie. Images of the big sky, threatened by thunderheads, were projected on a video screen behind the two dancers. Curd and Alexander wrestled with each other as tides of happenstance tugged at their limbs. The erotic charge of their coupling was real, but so was the gathering doom, and inevitably, the doom won out. Fair enough; there’s a lot of that going around. But a conflation of sex, death, and history on the Great Plains deserves a soundtrack more elemental (and less Hollywood-cinematic cliché) than slide guitar by Ry Cooder.
The show regained its sure footing with “Spring,” a breezy update of the modern dance cornerstone “Appalachian Spring,” outfitted in bold primary colors by Nimbus director and choreographer Samuel Pott. His blithe, engaging, stubbornly optimistic piece foregrounded the themes of unity and transgenerational communication that also animated Nimbus’s “Raucous Caucus Tango” and “Nutcracker” shows. Most of the dancing was aggressively harmonious, including a late-show intervention by a mini-troupe of young dancers, some of whom could not have reached double digits, carrying banners designed by Jersey City alcohol-ink artist Bryant Small. Even a mid-sequence “fight” between Alexander and the equally physical Caleb Mansour felt like it existed only to be resolved, in this case by Choquette, whose irrepressible Tintin-esque energy and shoulder-swiveling insouciance seem designed to prompt de-escalation. By now, I’m getting the feeling that Pott truly believes that a combination of art and compassion can heal American divisions, and I guess I’m glad that somebody still does.
But as a legion of soul performers learned to their dismay in the 1960s, Sam Cooke is a tough act to follow. His singing dredged up the Dixie dirt that undergirds the American experience, and spoke of pain, loneliness, and longing for liberation that Aaron Copland, masterful as he was, couldn’t approach. Though he was an American, Copland’s fundamental aesthetic orientation was toward European classical music, romantic works by Stravinsky, and the symphony orchestra. “Appalachian Spring” incorporates folk melodies and even a few American rhythms into its sweep, but those indigenous tunes and beats are put to the service of an art form that didn’t come from these shores. Notably, it’s those folk tunes that make “Appalachian Spring” so much more effervescent, and listenable, than other 20th Century classical compositions.
“Spring,” too, worked best when Pott let the Nimbus dancers execute some unmistakably American steps, including a square dance that was such a hoot to watch, and so fully embodied, that you’d think these city dancers were born to do-si-do. Better yet was a moment, fleeting but profound, when Alexander stepped out of the allegory and expressed himself with a move that suggested a deep familiarity with the most American art form of all: hip-hop. These American indulgences might seem excessive to a showgoer accustomed to classical dance. But excess, as I hope we can all acknowledge, is about as American as it gets.
Photo by Megan Maloy