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Choreographer's latest concert taps into the immigrant experience

Choreographer's latest concert taps into the immigrant experience

Naked in America

Choreography by Sonjé Mayo

8 p.m. Apr. 15-16 at Johnson Theater, TPAC

For info, call 352-0034 or 812-4328

When local choreographer Sonjé Mayo approached the The Tennessean about her upcoming performance, Naked in America, the newspaper refused to print a promotional photograph for the show. Why? The photograph revealed the back view of an undressed male dancer, with darkness obscuring his lower portions. “With this board of directors, we can’t print that,” someone at the paper told her. The Tennessean did run a long column about the performance in its Sunday edition, however, pointing out that there would be no nudity in the show, and that Sonjé Mayo used the “n” word only as a metaphor.

“This is just what I’m talking about in my new show,” Mayo says. “A tasteful photograph of a man’s backside is censored while women’s boobs hang out all over television.”

Even if The Tennessean remains squeamish about just the hint of nudity, the face of Nashville is changing. We are becoming an increasingly sophisticated city, as more and more transplants from across the U.S. and the rest of the world make their homes here. Sonjé Mayo’s latest dance concert wells out of her concern for these new immigrants—of which the South African dancer/choreographer is one herself. The evening centers around a series of ironic juxtapositions in which reality runs headlong into the fabled American dream.

The title Naked in America arises from the newcomers’ desire to shed their past history and clothe themselves in contemporary American culture. In their attempt to transform themselves into “real” Americans, oftentimes they are puzzled by the apparent contradiction of what is said and what is done. Welcome to America, home of the Braves!

The thematic material for Naked in America is drawn from the common experiences we all share, whether vicariously or in real life. Whether our ancestors came off the Mayflower, were crammed into slave ships, or crawled under the barbed-wire fences along the Rio Grande, Sonjé Mayo talks of transitions to which all must accommodate. Her cast serves as a model for these twin concepts of diversity and shared experience: The members include Fred Toler, a 10th-generation Nashvillian, and Saimir Elir Avdyli, an Albanian from the war-torn regions in today’s headlines. The latter, a 23-year-old dancer, seeks political asylum in the United States; as a gesture of gratitude to his new land, Avduli has taken a new name and added the middle name “Elir,” which means “freedom” in his native tongue.

The South African, Albanian, and German performers in the cast aren’t the only ones who’ve traveled great distances to come to Nashville. While Daniel Lee Wooden may not have been born abroad, he has made a different sort of journey from Bowling Green, Ky. Mayo’s experimental dance company calls upon Wooden to utilize a great range of emotional expression—a new experience for this quiet young dancer.

Her choreography is a stretch, too, for Dewayne Williams, who hails from a large family in Madison. The youngest in the company, 18-year-old Dewayne is a talented high-school student who studies painting at the Nashville School of the Arts. “He soaks up every experience like a sponge,” Sonjé says of her youngest protégé. He reminds her, she says, of some of the gifted students she once trained for her Johannesburg company, the first racially integrated dance troupe in South Africa.

Naked in America is a personal journey and a transitional piece for Mayo. If “No Holds Barred and More,” which premiered last April, was a cathartic experience that explored political persecution in her home country, then this weekend’s evening of dance is a humorous coming to terms with the foibles and fantasies of her new home. In the narrative for one piece, Mayo, who is no slouch herself, admits to being intimidated by the alarming self-confidence of the talkative Americans who surround her. As a satirical counterpoint to her introspective dialogue, the stage is filled with maniacally revved up pom-pom girls, all perky and peppy.

When asked what she foresees for her future development, Mayo predicts that her choreography will probably become less European and more American in its tastes. South Africa, she comments, is becoming a distant memory. America, she says, eyes beaming brightly, is her home.

Hands together

On March 30, Vanderbilt’s Great Performances charmed audiences with its final dance concert of the season, the Second Hand. The troupe, reminiscent of Oscar Schlemmer’s experimental dance theater from the 1930s Bauhaus movement, proved unusual on a number of counts: First of all, it was a contemporary dance company that included only three men but no women. Secondly, Greg O’Brian, Andy Horowitz, and Paul Gordon danced, postured, and played together as if they actually enjoyed what they were doing. No grunts, no groans of effort, no intention to impress with their prowess. Finally, they actually danced as an ensemble without one hint of competitive one-upmanship. Each of the dancers excelled in something—one in quirky movement, another in goofy good sportsmanship, and another in funky weight-lifting. All proved outstanding in their sense of humor. What sport!

From the East

Three days after the Second Hand performance, Malathi Iyengar and the Rangoli Dance Company came to Langford Auditorium for an evening of Indian dance—a rare occasion when the audience was dressed as colorfully as the performers. The first piece, an hour-and-a-half long, was dedicated to “Vishnu, the Preserver” and consisted of variations on the different incarnations of the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu. Malathi Iyengar danced with an enigmatic smile and rapid-fire footwork, concluding with the flute-to-mouth and crossed-foot stance seen in much of Indian sculpture and painting.

Indian dance calls for highly expressive eyes and winsome expressions that sweep across the face. Because each hand gesture signifies a specific meaning, the dancers call attention to their fingers by painting the tips red. It is an ancient dance form and one that has attracted a growing number of students through the efforts of local dancer/teacher Monica Cooley, as well as other teachers from the local Indian community.

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