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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Eternal Tamiris

Posted by on Wed, Jul 18, 2007 at 11:55 PM

This week's Past/Forward performance featured a reconstruction of Laura Dean's Sky Light (done by Rodger Belman) and the world premiere of Rudy Perez's I Like a View But I Like to Sit With My Back to It. Sky Light was a ritualistic party set entirely to drumming, and Perez's piece was like watching a flock of talented animals on an Armagedon playground. While all three pieces in Past/Forward were enjoyable and well-done, the recreation of Helen Tamiris's piece resonated most with me.

Tamiris, the original choreographer of How Long Brethren? was one of the foremost innovators of the modern dance movement. Fueled by her strong social conscience, Tamiris produced dance works that ignited society's hidden kindling, bringing to the surface the issues that most needed to be discussed.

A dramatization of Lawrence Gellert's Negro Songs of Protest, her work, How Long Brethren? is one of her most famous pieces, depicting the struggle of unemployed Southern black people. Tamiris ironically worked with an all-white company of women as she premiered her piece on Broadway in 1937.

Dianne McIntyre's recreation of How Long Brethren? seems to pay tribute to the noble endeavors of the original production through its simplicity, which mirrors well the era in which the original piece was produced. The premier of How Long Brethren? was due to the FDR administration's WPA Federal Theatre and Dance Project, which was a massively successful effort to employ professional artists during the tumultuous time following the Great Depression (the project functioned from 1935-1939). McIntyre's recreation uses the original music and costume designs, as well as a simple stage design, all of which show great respect for the original work, and raise the recreation to a height beyond historical appreciation, where history becomes a wise elder, gently reminding us of our current social problems. The fact that the piece maintained much of its originality puts us in the minds of the audience members from 1937, allowing us to reflect on what has and has not changed about our social constructs since then.

Today, black people are not the only ones who face the challenges of unemployment, low wages, and discrimination in America. Lyrics from Gellert's collection, while outdated in many ways, contain a spirit of hardship that still exists. "Workin' on de railroad, fifty cents a day. De boss at de comp'ny sto' sign all I makes away. Mammy po'ly write, 'Please sen' some money, son. But I ain't got no ready made money." In the ADF program notes, Tamiris is described as possessing "a responsiveness to the unformulated will of an epoch, a drive to do what a time required." Seventy years after the premier of How Long Brethren? and forty-one years after her death, Tamiris still finds a way to face the social problems of the time head-on with her timeless intuition and brilliance in dance.

Copyright (c) 2000. The University of Iowa. All rights reserved. (Tamiris)

Copyright (c) 2000 MetaScholar Initiative (Negro Songs)

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