The slave girl falls down on her knees in agony. Her master has just raped her — a violation choreographed to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The irony of the action in this scene and the song playing in the background is made evident in the familiar lyrics: “Billie Jean is not my lover / She’s just a girl who thinks that I am the one / But the kid is not my son –“
Those quick to dismiss hip-hop and contemporary music as genres lacking authenticity should prepare themselves to be challenged by Camele-Ann White’s ’03 “400 Years.” In her 45-minute Sudler-funded show, produced by Jazmine Leon, White takes the audience on a journey from the pre-slavery era to a New York City subway train in the present day. In each setting along the way, dancers in costume portray an aspect of African-American history to a soundtrack of Janet Jackson, Bob Dylan, Outkast and Notorious B.I.G., among others.
The opening scene has an Afro-Caribbean feel with Aaliyah’s soft voice singing over alluring beats. The large white cloth thrown over the dancers in green wrap skirts and tank tops represents bondage. But the dancing that takes place underneath the cloth and after it is taken away symbolizes the freedom of spirit within black people and survival in spite of oppression.
One particularly poignant scene shows the progression of black labor from the domestic sphere (slow, graceful movements) to the industrial realm (more robotic motions) and ends with a sex worker who commits suicide, depicted by long red ribbons flowing from both wrists. All the while, Alicia Keys sings: “Every day I realize that this might be the last day of my life / There is nothing more to be here for / Take me away, I can’t live that life no more.” Some dancers to look out for are Mike Apuzzo ’05, who appears in nearly every scene; Natalia Duncan ’06, who exhibits remarkable ballerina-like elegance and poise; and Krystle Woods ’05, who has a striking presence every time she’s on the floor.
White, a film studies major and a member of the dance group Rhythmic Blue, choreographed the show. She said that her fellow dancers describe it as “mini-films centered around a subtext of a song.”
“Hip-hop has taken a while to gain legitimacy. A lot of people think that it doesn’t require technique,” White said.
Much of White’s inspiration comes from her Caribbean roots. A native of Jamaica, she moved to the United States while she was in elementary school, and has lived in the Bronx, N.Y., since. Although at an early age her mother placed her in ballet, tap and jazz classes, as a senior in high school she enrolled in an African dance class and has been hooked ever since.
At the end of her note in the program, White stated, “I only hope this show can live up to its challenge.” It definitely does. Her show is insightful and is a great start on the celebration of black history not just in February, but every month.
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