Winged Migration

Dancing down the legacy of the Wright brothers

Could anything be less romantic than flying these days? Security searches, crabby flight attendants, screaming babies with earaches--it's enough to make you consider driving. One can almost forget that flying was once considered a great adventure, especially on December 17, 1903, when Wilbur and Orville Wright willed their test plane aloft for a few exhilarating seconds in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers from Dayton, Ohio, realized a dream that had eluded inventors for centuries--leaving bizarre diagrams and painful-looking blooper films behind--and ushered in an era of social and scientific change.

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) launched The Flight Project to explore the metaphorical aspects of flying, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' accomplishment. Originally conceived by DCDC's founder, the late Jeraldyne Blunden, and artistic director Kevin Ward, the project involves five modern dance choreographers tasked with interpreting the theme of "inventing flight." DCDC's 14 dancers will test The Flight Project (along with Warren Spears's "On the Wings of Angels," a tribute to the African American Tuskegee Airmen of World War II) at Northrop Auditorium on Saturday night, before heading to the Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

"[The works] didn't have to be about the Wrights or airplanes," explains the 50-year-old Ward, who joined DCDC as a dancer 22 years ago. "All the choreographers wanted to avoid the obvious parallels between dancing and flying. They each chose an original way to handle the subject." For example, Dwight Rhoden, a former DCDC member, created "Sky Garden," which, says Ward, is "about the spiritual journey of the soul, and more specifically Blunden's spiritual journey, and how she prepared the company for takeoff, both during its 35-year history and at the end of her life."

Indeed, the project pays homage to Blunden's broad artistic vision, one forged out of her experiences as a young girl who simply wanted to take ballet classes. In 1948, several African American mothers asked the Schwarz School of Dance to admit their children, but segregation still governed Dayton's institutions. The Schwarz sisters decided to create a satellite school at a recreation center in Dayton's black community and Blunden soon became their star student. The Schwarzes later helped her win scholarships to the American Dance Festival, where she studied with such legends as Martha Graham and George Balanchine. As an adult, Blunden launched DCDC in her hometown and filled the repertory with a variety of contemporary approaches, from Alvin Ailey to Merce Cunningham, to be performed by a culturally diverse cast of dancers."Her legacy is kind of like second nature to me," explains Ward, who now leads the troupe with Blunden's daughter, Debbie Blunden-Diggs. "There's a lot of things we're staying true to, but we're always looking to what's new on the scene as well."

This quest is evident in the choices made by the project choreographers. Ward explains that Doug Varone has fashioned a fable "about a young woman who wishes she could fly and how the community gathers around her for the failure and the triumph." Bebe Miller, he says, has taken a more abstract approach, centering her "Aerodigm" on "invention and the kind of play that is involved in invention, and how that play can lead to discovery." Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's "Eurydice's Flight," reimagines that mythological figure's escape into the underworld as a means of self-discovery. Finally, Bill T. Jones with his "and before..." cultivates what Ward calls a "community on the verge of a great breakthrough, a monumental undertaking that will take [it] forward in a big leap.

"At the turn of the 20th century, so many inventors were working--the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford--let alone the things happening across the country and Europe," Ward concludes. "It was just this major concentration of effort."

Is it possible that such great minds, in collaboration with the DCDC's choreographers, could finally figure out how to sidestep the beverage cart on the way to the vacuum toilets?

 
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