Sunday, March 20, 2011

Othella Dallas & Ismael Ivo Hit Grand Slams out of the Park

(Venice, Italy) The powerhouse named Othella Dallas was born in 1925 in Memphis, Tennesse, and after more than fourscore, appears to be at the height of her career. When she finished her performance at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale last evening, she thanked Ismael Ivo, the Director of La Biennale Dance and creator of the Arsenale della Danza for "finding" her. (That photo is not from yesterdays' performance -- if anything, her energy was even more tremendous.) By the end of the evening, the entire theater was on its feet, singing and clapping along with Othella as she sang, "Oh, Happy Day."

Ismael Ivo
This is the third edition of L'Arsenale della Danza, La Biennale's investment in the future of dance, with Ismael Ivo at the helm. In 2010, auditions for the dance company were held in Venice, Italy, Vienna, Austria and São Paulo, Brazil. (Click HERE to read the Venetian Cat - Venice Blog post Let's Dance! L'Arsenale della Danza - Body in Progress.)

Francesca Haper's master class
© La Biennale
The winners arrived in Venice in January, 2011, and are presently in the middle of attending intensive master classes by visiting instructors -- Marion Ballester, Niels "Storm" Robitzky, Francesca Harper, Plinio Ferreira do Santo, Othella Dallas and Kenji Takagi -- whose backgrounds are a schmorgesborg of contemporary and classical dance styles, including Hip-Hop and the Brazil martial art of Capoeira. At the end of each master class, the product of the encounter is performed free of charge to the public in a series called "Open Doors" at Teatro Piccolo Arsenale at 6:00pm on Saturday evenings. So, we are getting a rare treat -- the opportunity to watch the dancers' work-in-progress.

Othella Dallas was a protégé of the renowned Katherine Dunham, who died in 2006, one month before her ninety-fifth birthday. The evening began with an English-language video of clips from Dunham's life. From Wikipedia:

Katherine Mary Dunham (June 22, 1909 – May 21, 2006) was an American dancerchoreographersongwriter, author, educator, and activist. Dunham had one of the most successful dance careers in American and European theater of the 20th century and has been called the "Matriarch and Queen Mother of Black Dance".[1]

During her heyday in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, she was renowned throughout Europe and Latin America as "that Black woman", and the Washington Post called her "Dance's Katherine the Great". For more than 30 years she maintained the Katherine Dunham Dance Company, the only permanent, self-subsidized American black dance troupe at that time, and over her long career she choreographed more than 90 individual dances. Dunham was an innovator in African-American modern dance as well as a leader in the field of Dance Anthropology, or Ethno choreology. ...

Despite strong opposition from the State Department, the Katherine Dunham Company performed Southland, a ballet whose theme dramatizing lynching of blacks in the racist American South, in Santiago, Chile. As a result, she would later experience some diplomatic "difficulties" on her tours. The State Department regularly subsidized other less well known groups, it consistently refused to support her company (even when it was entertaining US Army troops), although at the same time it did not hesitate to take credit for them as "unofficial artistic and cultural representatives". In attempts to downplay their popularity, the State Dept. repeatedly scheduled performances of their cultural representatives in conflict with those of the Dunham Company, invited ambassadors and other foreign officials to these performances, despite the frequent protests of officials and recommendations that Dunham's Company be supported... 
Click HERE to read the Wikipedia article. (It's interesting to note that the US State Department has been behaving in such a petty, undignified fashion for such a long time. As P.J. Crowley, who just resigned from the State Department recently said: "The United States, as an exceptional country in the world, has to be seen as practising what we preach." Ditto that. Speaking from personal experience as an American writer living in Europe, it has come as a shock to me how much damage the State Department is prepared to do to their own citizens to discredit them -- instead of practicing what they preach.)  

In one clip, Katherine Dunham, then in her nineties, tells a youthful, turban-haired woman who is visiting at her bedside: "To me, you don't seem like you are seventy-seven. You seem like you are thirty-seven." When the video had finished, the lights went up on a woman with a deep, penetrating voice belting out a tune from the floor in front of the stage, accompanied by a guitarist and a drummer on congas. After a moment, I realized it was the same turban-haired woman in the video, who, at that time, had been seventy-seven-years-old. I did some quick math, subtracting 1925 from 2011. Here, standing in front of us was Othella Dallas, and she was nigh on her eighty-sixth year.

 Dallas is a singer as well as a dancer, and is dubbed the "Grand Old Lady of Jazz, Blues and Funk." From Jazz at Lincoln Center:

Born 1925 in Memphis, Othella Dallas can look back to a long and illustrious career. She was discovered by the iconoclast dance teacher Katherine Dunham and was awarded a scholarship to study with her in New York. After the war Othella became a permanent member of the Katherine Dunham dance company and a teacher at the Dunham School. She began her successful American singing career in New York, 1954 -- appearing alongside such greats as Sammy Davis Jr. at the Apollo, Duke Ellington, Sony Stitt and King Curtis, to name just a few. Her career brought Othella to Switzerland where she opened her own highly successful jazz ballet academy in Basel and continued to sing at clubs and concert halls across the continent. 

Click HERE to read the entire article.

Othella Dallas' speciality is Afro-Caribbean dance and rhythm, and the dancers performed on stage to an exotic mixture of music, which was not identified in the program. The Arsenale della Danza company has been together now since January 17, and will culminate with performances in May, so they are just about halfway through their master class lessons. Mid-term report card: I was mightily impressed with their movements as well as their unity, and judging by the audience reaction, so was everyone else. 
Ismael Ivo & Paolo Baratta
I remember several years ago when Ismael Ivo and Paolo Baratta, the President of La Biennale, held a press conference and announced that they were going to create this opportunity for dancers. Back then, it was just an incredible idea and many people doubted whether they could pull it off. Well, they are actually doing it, and it is actually working!  

The theater was packed with people at 6:00pm on a Saturday evening way down by Arsenale. How they all got there, I have no idea. Word of mouth, perhaps, announcements in the local Venice tourist brochures, dance enthusiasts, whatever. All different ages were represented, young, old, middle-aged; all sorts of nationalities were there, but the majority seemed to be Italians. 

At the end of the performance, Othella announced that she was going to sing a gospel song, and started belting out, "Oh, Happy Day," which, if you know the tune, is almost irresistible. It is usually difficult to get Italians up on their feet to participate, but Othella insisted that everyone stand. She pulled several people to their feet. She made everyone clap. The dancers came out on stage and started singing and dancing behind Othella. People in the audience resisted at first, but Othella's sunshine was so bright that soon everyone's icy reserve melted. More and more people rose to their feet as their souls connected to the song. Soon the entire theater was moving and clapping, the audience from their seats, the dancers up on stage, and Othella standing in the center of it all, everyone singing, "Oh, Happy Day." Othella herself became so emotional that she suddenly stopped and put her head down on one of the drums, overwhelmed. She said that had never happened to her before. 

Then Othella climbed up on the stage and started dancing with the dancers; Ismael Ivo presented her with a bouquet of flowers; one of the male dancers swept her off her feet, and carried her off the stage. Othella Dallas was laughing and waving and hugging her flowers as if she were thirty-five, not eighty-five. 

And the crowd went wild. 

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

Here's the original "Oh, Happy Day," with Edwin (who wrote it) & Lynette Hawkins:

1 comment:

  1. How wonderful! I wish I could have been there! Cat, thanks for the wonderful reports! I hope to see you at the end of April!