Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre, known for dances made alongside original music, presented an evening of work last Thursday by choreographer Monique Haley at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center. Several pieces have been in development for years—a luxury for choreographers who are often forced to create dances in a matter of weeks or months, only to have them performed for a weekend before being tucked into repertory files. Cerqua Rivera nurtures performances on a more human timeline, with plenty of works-in-progress showings along the way. All of Haley’s pieces on the program, which will run at the Logan Center for the Arts on May 27, have appeared on stage in some form over the last few years, giving her valuable audience feedback and audiences the chance to steep themselves in a visual story more than once.
The program, built around the world premiere of the now-complete “Soul Remedy,” bears the fruits of long-term cultivation. After a short set by the e Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center’s Afro-Caribbean jazz youth ensemble, the program opened with excerpts from Haley’s 2019 “ROOT: mwanzo wa mwili ni roho,” a joyful piece inspired by West African culture. The eight dancers, accompanied by an onstage drummer, feel like twenty. It didn’t hurt that the performance space is floor level, putting the dancers a few feet—at times inches—from the front row, giving a middle-of-the-action view of explosive ensemble sections. While audiences at the Logan Center will be further from the action, the larger stage will give this energetic dance the room to really stretch its wings.
Next is “Culture Loop,” created by Haley in 2020 as a suite of solos in response to the pandemic and social justice uprisings. Catera Burgess, dressed in rust red, gives a soul-baring performance that begins in a crawl and ends in a choked and gasping cry. Dancing to a recording of a poem by Shea Glover, layered with music by Joe Cerqua and vocals by Margaret Murphy-Webb, Burgess is wracked with agony and exhaustion; she bursts from the ground in flying leaps before crumpling to the floor again and again. Murphy-Webb slowly traverses the stage as she sings, gazing with compassion on the tormented dancer as though offering a comfort and respite that does not exist.
The program concludes with the premiere of “Soul Remedy,” a suite Haley created in collaboration with jazz musician and composer Pharez Whitted and dedicated to Black American creativity—what scholar Robert Farris Thompson dubbed the Aesthetic of the Cool. The piece opens with a Langston Hughes poem read by Murphy-Webb, then bursts into a rendition of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)” that connects the dots between African dance, jazz music and swing dances of the early twentieth century. A solo danced by guest artist Anthony Otto Nelson Jr. follows. Nelson is radiant in high-waisted, jewel tone trousers and a striped button-down tossed over undershirt and suspenders. He floats and suspends, savoring each gesture, luxuriating in the elegant stretch of his limbs, smiling playfully at Murphy-Webb, an embodiment of Black joy.
When the group returns, they’re dressed similarly, but the good vibes change when the ensemble becomes a mob that descends on Catera Burgess—featured again here, a standout amidst a technically strong and emotionally committed company—ripping the shirt from her back. Nelson reprises his solo, this time disoriented by a callous and self-absorbed world. The piece makes a stop in the eighties, reflecting on frustrations given voice in the birth of hip-hop. “Soul Remedy” ends on an upbeat note, a section called “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which pulls from the rich and extensive lexicon of Black dances that define American culture and influence the globe: snippets of vogueing, krumping and house are added to the jazz, funk, hip-hop mix, all woven seamlessly into a celebratory finale.
As part of their spring series, Cerqua Rivera will also perform “Identity City” at Studio5 Performing Arts Center June 2-3.
Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre at the Logan Center for the Arts, 915 East 60th. Saturday, May 27 at 7:30pm. $35-$50. Tickets at eventbrite.com.