Choreographer/dancer Lauren Putty White and husband composer/musician Brent White form the Putty Dance Project. Together with producer/director Phil Sumpter, they created iStand, Stories of an American Civil Struggle, at the Community Education Center over the Thanksgiving weekend.
Reviewing sociologically based performances created in almost real time with current events can be dicey. The filter of time can save them from being corny, emotionally overloaded, or lacking in depth. But Putty White and company avoided those pitfalls to create a restrained, emotionally canny and artistically charged work in iStand. Less is more.
A University of the Arts graduate and Ellen Forman Award recipient, Putty White is a nominee for a 2016 Pew Fellowship. Her company, in residence at the Community Education Center, consists of seasoned Philadanco dancers Roxanne Lyst and Joe Gonzalez, as well as Amanda Edwards, Isaac Lindy, and Sarah Warren, who form a racially mixed and coherent ensemble with Putty White.
The opening and closing dances set the tone and carry the work home. The voices of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance float over Brent White's opening chords, resonating with Putty White's movement schema. Although her choreography is rapid, abstract, and angular, it's readable when the five dancers bend over at the waist with shoulders rounded, stepping exaggeratedly on the leading foot while making quarter-turns to 360 degrees - a pimp strut, drill-team style. They add a little "Nae Nae," or mime fistfighting with their legs spread wide in squats. Running backward, it looks like a metaphor for "ain't gettin' anywhere."
They close the sections in pledge with right hands over hearts that quickly slide up the sides of their heads in a slumping lament. Later, when Gonzalez finally obeys the recorded command "Hands over your head," his indignant resignation rapidly morphs into sorrow as his hand flattens against his heart once more.
In between each dance section, Larry Dixon's compelling video interviews ask questions like, "Do you see yourself as predator or prey," and are answered with frankness and sincerity. Edwards dances a few counts of Africanist style dancing that predates the pimp strut. In Putty White's solo to an excerpt of an Obama speech overlaid by Brent White's live trombone improvisation, she slips in a count or so of Mummer's strut.
The cast returns in variations of red and white over blue jeans, moving ambivalently, ending phrases abruptly, beginning them again. They genuflect, raise hands in a shooting position, quietly close their left hands down over their pointed fingers. There would be no shooting. There would be truth. And there would still, astonishingly, be love.