Choreographer and dancer Kyle Marshall, along with dancers Bree Breeden, Cayleen Del Rosario, José Lapaz Rodriguez, Niara Hardister, and Nik Owens performed with masterful dance movement, action, energy, and stamina, plus beauty and sensitivity in their very challenging, multi- layered program last night.

The first dance, Alice began in darkness with a recorded chant that repeated a short phrase about desire for peace and perfection. I believe the chant was spoken by Alice Coltrane and her husband, the great and influential jazz saxophonist and NC native, John Coltrane. Alice is a solo dance in three sections with each section set to a different composition by Alice Coltrane. It was performed masterfully by Breeden.

I had only heard the very avant-garde sounds of Alice Coltrane so I was a bit apprehensive about hearing her music – but the three pieces of Alice, “The Sun,” “Sivaya,” and “Wisdom Eye” were very accessible. In part 1, “The Sun,” a pretty ballad played by Coltrane on her home studio upright piano, Breeden expressed the search for meaning in life and desire for a better life. In part 2, “Sivaya,” a pleasing grooving song with vocals, Breeden portrayed the process of transformation from her current life to a higher level. In part 3, “Wisdom Eye,” Coltrane switches to her harp, and the music and expert dancing of Breeden brought us into a new and more perfect world.

I learned from the post-performance discussion that Alice Coltrane had spent decades playing her music only at the Coltrane’s home studio with friends and collaborators, so that she could search for ways to bring out her innermost feelings about life and convey her thoughts through the music without any expectations from an audience. I’m much more appreciative of her now.

The second dance of the evening, Onyx, was an amazing depiction of the journey and history of Black and Brown American musicians who created early Rock n’ Roll. Marshall’s goal was for the audience to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of those original creators: Little Richard, Betty Davis, Death, James Brown, LaVern Baker, Tina Turner, Big Mama Thornton (“You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog”), Sonny Sharrock, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Let’s face it, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Rolling Stones, to name just a few, wouldn’t have been such big stars if it wasn’t for the original creators.

Onyx successfully leaves us knowing who the original creators were of Rock’n Roll. But even without a story line, anyone would simply find it so exciting to just watch the dancers perform Marshall’s original choreography. There was also a very creative soundtrack by Kwami Winfield. Winfield made a great collage of the recordings of the original creators. I liked how Winfield started the soundtrack with the unleashed dissonant sounds of the great guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. We learned later in the discussion that Hendrix started out playing for four years in the James Brown band – how many of us know that?

One thing I wondered about was how much, if any, improvisation was occurring. Whenever I thought the troupe was improvising they would suddenly come together in synchronized movements. I recently heard the Grammy-winning composer John Beasley say, “I want the performance of my written compositions to sound improvised, and I want my groups’ improvisations to sound like they are written.” Well then, could it be that the dances were so well choregraphed, and the dancers knew their parts so well that it looked and felt spontaneous and improvised? Sure enough, I asked Marshall, and he said it was all choregraphed by him. I asked him how long it took him to create the piece, and he said that it had taken him nine months!

There were so many parts in Onyx that engaged me. I was enticed when the group danced to the sounds of early blues and depicted trains. This section told the story of the great migration of Black and Brown Americans from the South to the North. The white glove on Little Richard’s hand and the immense energy and pain brilliantly portrayed by Nik Owens showed how hard Little Richard worked and struggled under the control of white producers and managers. And there was the section when all the dancers ran and jumped and did all sorts of moves in seeming madness. But it looked like so much fun to do that! There was also a very warm love scene. Near the end, there was a scene that paid tribute to the gallant survivor, Tina Turner, again expertly characterized by Breeden in the song “I Can’t Stand The Rain Against my Window.”

All the dancers were incredible, and it was a wonderful show. ADF continues the 2023 program through July and August in Durham – check out the calendar here.