New dance at Thelma Hill, a Brooklyn gem

The Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center is one of the most undervalued performance organizations in the city.

For 36 years the organization has produced dance and writing by emerging and established artists of color, adding a particular focus on LGBT in recent years. Far from creating a ghettoized art, Thelma Hill has been an early and ongoing presenter of many of today’s most notable choreographers this season, including: Sidra Bell, Francesca Harper and George Faison, as well as Kyle Abraham, who will re-visit his Paradise Garage later this year.

With Long Island University's lovely Kumble theatre as its home, Junior's restaurant across the street, and performances by top, fresh, both up-and-coming, and established choreographers, the theater should be packed. But on June 19 it wasn't, a loss for anyone who follows dance.

Thelma Hill concerts are often "first looks," a chance for artists to present and refine new works. The result is often revealing and sometimes eye-opening. Billed as "The Dance Sons of Brooklyn," the Tuesday concert featured three, very different choreographers who entered the field over a fifteen-year span.

Photo courtesy of the Thelma Hill Performing Arts CenterMalcom Low is the newest. Trained in Chicago's mix of jazz, afro-jazz, and ballet, performing in New York with everyone from Bill T. Jones and Stephen Petronio to Ronald K. Brown/Evidence and several ballet companies, Low began showing work in 1999. He was a 2011 recipient of Brooklyn Arts Exchanges "Passing It On Award."

Low's work shows his disparate influences. Like Jones, Low's "Untitled," with music by Dorothy Moore, sits clearly within current "modern dance" trends while remaining distinctive and unusual. Off-kilter balances, twists, lifts that are less spectacular than they are necessary to the forward movement of the choreography, soft tosses of the body that fall into twisted folds, and swinging traverses of the floor are all key to his vocabulary. Dynamic, well-crafted, and beautifully danced with Simone Sobers, Low's experimentation with, and extension of, modern dance tropes and techniques captivated me.

Quite different was Jamal Jackson's "Space Coding," for which Jackson also wrote the music. A seamless mix of hip hop, modern, and African-derived movements, its sum was a unique, distinct, exciting vocabulary based in strong rhythms, simple but powerful physical gestures, and clear spatial patterns. Tight choreography and fluid dancing by DeAngelo Blanchard, Jackson, Asha Rohodes, Sean Thomas and Gabrielle Wilson made the work riveting.

Less successful, or at least less interesting, was "Mile 21" danced by Tiffani Harris, Dana Thomas, and Wilson. Dressed in black spandex with running stripes along their sides, the choreography for "Mile 21," though performed well, seemed run-of the mill, traditional, next to "Space Coding."

Germaul Barnes' "Half Full/Manifest Destiny" had wonderful, integral costumes that worked in its favor only half the time. To strains of “Strange Fruit,” the lights came up on an oddly shaped, glittering hump that unfolded into dancer Aaron R. White, standing inside a deep red and gold mirrored Indian-style skirt expanded into a perfect round with a hoop. The hoop prevented movement, but this only highlighted White’s sweeping arms and the gorgeous arc of his arched back. It’s remarkable how long you can watch a lovely mover move in limited ways, how many nuances there are in small gestures.

Eventually the skirt flew up over White’s raised arms and across the stage where it hung, ghost-like. White remained tethered inside a huge white piece of fabric, like a giant sheet. At first a sense of flight seems inherent in the sweep of the fabric, hints of a model on the runway, then the long, white train becomes a sail, White the ship’s figure-head. But then the work begins to dim. Perhaps Barnes has not yet discovered everything there is inside the fabric, perhaps there is only so much to be done with leaning and pulling, but it took too long for the white sheet to unwind from White’s body and disappear.

To complex, Eastern-sounding drums White undulated and twisted, his legs, visibly moving for the first time, kicked as he moved across the floor. Positioning himself under the suspended skirt White slowly sunk, cross-legged to the floor. The skirt lit up, a giant, red lampshade over his head. There is much to work with in this dance, but so often when choreographers become enamored of their props it is the props that rule to the detriment of the dance.

Three choreographers, bound by their Brooklyn base, but also by their experiments in combining dance movement, rhythms, and shapes derived from a variety of sources. All of them are looking for something new.