Four years have passed since the Xclaim Dance Company first found artistic inspiration in traditional spirituals.
In 2017, the jazz troupe in central Ohio performed a program called Spirituals. In addition to dancing, the show featured spirituals – religious songs developed and sung by blacks during slavery – sung live by Diane Ransom.
Xclaim Artistic Director Mariah Layne French wanted to return to a fertile area, but before the follow-up program “Spirituals II” could reach a stage in March last year, the coronavirus pandemic got in the way.
“Of course, COVID hit and we had to put the plans on hold,” said French. “We literally closed just before the show was scheduled.”
Now, a year later, the long-belated Spirituals II will finally reach audiences in central Ohio. The show will be performed on an outdoor stage from May 7th to 9th, located behind the Xclaim building at 2141 Indianola Ave.
“We’re going to turn off all of our theater lights and put a dance floor on the stage,” said French, whose company generally performs at the Fisher Theater at Columbus Dance Theater.
Reserved seats are available for $ 20, but spectators willing to stay away from ideal lines of sight can take their own chairs to look for a requested donation.
By bringing together a wide variety of dance styles, not just the jazz genre that Xclaim is best known for, French hopes the program will reflect the range of movement that will emerge from the African diaspora.
“We were first and foremost a jazz company, and without those African diaspora roots we would be lost,” said French. “Without jazz there is no jazz. For me artistically it means to appreciate the richness of this diversity. “
To break off the program, Xclaim decided to team up with Tru Kingdom Mega Crew, a hip-hop dance group led by J. Shannon Filmore, also a dancer and resident choreographer of Xclaim.
The 12 dancers who will be featured on the program over the coming weekend represent a mix of those associated with Xclaim and those performing with Tru Kingdom. The dancers rehearsed and trained together over the past year.
“We talked about not only diversifying the corporate image, but also re-styling and enriching the company,” said Filmore. “That really brings (Tru Kingdom) to the table.”
Although the companies have worked together before, they have not done a seasonal mix before. And the two dancers learn from each other.
“We have mostly ballet / contemporary dancers learning hip-hop movement and the latter: hip-hop dancers learning more contemporary or ballet-like movements,” said Filmore. “We’re usually in our own genres.”
As with the previous performance, “Spirituals II” will feature traditional spirituals sung by Ransom between dance pieces, including “Go Down Moses” and “This Little Light of Mine”. True to the diversity of the program, other types of music will also be heard.
“There’s a little funk, there’s a little soul, there’s a little hip-hop,” said French.
The two-part program opens with “A Prophet and a Parable”, a jazz piece that was choreographed by the French based on recordings of the spirituals “Elijah Rock” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”.
“It’s kind of a (bob) Fosse style,” said French. “I trained under one of Fosse’s dancers, that would make me the second generation.”
Other works on the bill include “Exodus”. Choreographed by French and Xclaim dancer Corinne Wood, the dance uses modern dance and Afro-Fusion movement to evoke the story of the Underground Railroad and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
“People in the Pews” – choreographed by French, Wood and another Xclaim dancer, Megan Blum – takes a look at the role of organized religion in the development of the civil rights movement.
“It’s an unexpected juxtaposition of things: we play funk music in a church service that you wouldn’t hear,” said French. “It tells these stories in a unique way of collage.”
Also on the program is an all-female group of African amateur dancers with immigrant backgrounds or refugees from Praise Chapel International, a church on Sinclair Road that has been training in French for about a year and a half.
“I try to help them be comfortable with their roots and even be proud of their roots,” said French. “We do a weekly movement in Africa together.”
The Praise Chapel group, which will perform to music with a version of Our Father in Swahili, originally consisted only of girls but soon became adult women.
“We invited some of their mothers to sit in the halls and watch,” said French. “It was a lot of fun helping them through the movement. Many of them had never specifically moved before. “
“Spirituals II” ends with Filmore’s “Now is the Time”, a dance that mixes excerpts from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with gospel and jazz music. All 12 dancers are featured in the piece.
“The play really is a call to action,” said Filmore. “What are you doing? Are you doing what you can? Are we all doing what we can to fight for peace and freedom?”
At a glance
The Xclaim Dance Company will perform the outdoor show “Spirituals II” from May 7th to 20th at 8:00 pm and May 9th at 4:00 pm at the Xclaim Center for the Arts, 2141 Indianola Ave. Reserved seating tickets are $ 20; Donations will be brought for seats. You can find more information and current seating information at xclaimarts.org.