Song in a Strange Land is an evocative blend of concert jazz dance, jazz music, and literary texts. Inspired by the Bible's Psalm 137: 3-4 (in which Jeremiah relates how Babylonian captors asked Jews to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land) JazzAntiqua’s 'song' refers to the African diaspora (of the New World) and the memories of the past. The messages range from elders sharing wisdom about believing in oneself and one’s community to telling of the realities of the injustices that exist for African Americans. The theme of the Psalm underlines that of Song in a Strange Land. This evening-long piece tells of the memory of slavery, and the theatrical dance and music performance focuses on the struggle to maintain wholeness of body, mind, and spirit among strangers that have demoralized. 

Jason Poullard © Joe Lambie
Jason Poullard
© Joe Lambie
The concert jazz dance style of JazzAntiqua blends polyrhythms, isolations of body parts and the use of asymmetrical, cross-lateral spatial pulls. It provokes an emotional reaction in the viewers in a playful hot and cool game of sharing what one has inside. The dancers have composure, but give everything. The blend of Africanist aesthetics and Eurocentric ballet technique is representative of a uniquely American concert jazz style that bridges cultures within a piece about living that very bridge. Directed by Pat Taylor, JazzAntiqua is one of a few companies committed to concert jazz dance, exploring the structural layering of dance, music, and text within performance. Within the twelve sections of Song in a Strange Land, Taylor not only integrated but also isolated the mediums, sometimes blending the art forms and occasionally, alternatively featuring jazz music alone.

Taylor’s style is strong, yet light, tensile and buoyant, sassy and playful. Small bursts mark accents, and reveal secrets to come. Dancers tease the audience with direct glances, ephebic undulations of the torso, and quick changes of level. Narration throughout the evening by Ava DuPree seamlessly wove the twelve pieces together.

Sensitively and splendidly performed music by Paul Legaspi (drums), Derf Reklaw (percussion), Aaron Provisor (piano), and Trevor Ware (bass), directed by Ware, was the foundation for the performance. Beginning with By the Rivers of Babylon, Jeremiah Tatum began center stage, alone, shifting and swaying as if on a slave ship, not knowing his impending plight. The dance ensemble met at the river’s edge to embark, towards life in a foreign land. In One of These Mornings, dancers Jason Poullard and Laura Ann Smyth depicted a couple’s tenderness. Miscommunications reveal their struggle to connect with each other in this new land.

All Stories are True, an improvisation set to Bell Hooks' texts, staged five people sitting on stools experiencing the space allotted to them. With a jolt, one man sprung to his feet atop the stool, a surprising feat. He seemed to be facing judgment while teetering on his precarious precipice. The narrator recited: “There is light in the darkness. You just have to find it.”(Hooks). In This Bitter Earth, by guest choreographers Frit and Frat Fuller, Poullard and Smyth, joined by Terrica Banks, Alberta Keyes, Jovanie Leonard, and Shari Washington Rhone, performed with body part isolations, floor work, and reaching. In Underwater, Michael Battle, Christopher Nolen, and Chris Smith seamlessly and sensitively partnered Rhone as the narrator spoke text from June Jordan’s libretto, “I was Looking at the Ceiling and then I saw the Sky.”

Shari Washington Rhone © Joe Lambie
Shari Washington Rhone
© Joe Lambie

Moving Target, by Frit and Frat Fuller again, depicted men being chased and hunted down by authorities. The captive, unarmed man was forced to lie prostrate on the earth. He complied peacefully, but his life was extinguished without discussion, perhaps alluding to recent sad events in which young, unarmed black men have been similarly shot and killed by police for unknown reasons – panic, mistaken armament... or pure racism.

In I Dream of the Drums, hip hop dancer Nakia Mason improvises to Langston Hughes' poem, which addresses Sundays in New Orleans when slaves had one day of 'freedom.' Hip hop is the African American’s dance of freedom, a celebration of the polyrhythms of the Africanist Aesthetics retained in both hip hop music and dance.

151 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, JazzAntiqua 'sings' a song that details the past and alludes to recent events. The African spirit of community and independence lives on in the music, dance, and literary texts of African American tradition. While Taylor’s work shows that progress for equal rights and respect has been less than ideal in the United States, she also represents the deep unity of the African American community through music, dance, and story. The one-night show was sold out.