VTDance/Vincent E. Thomas in Moving Dialogues Redux at Baltimore Theater Project 3/12/22

Lisa Green-Cudek

All around, the news worsens. In the theater, Vincent Thomas creates a sanctuary

Vincent Thomas is an award winning choreographer and a Professor of Dance at Towson University. He has performed his work throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, and is an Urban Bush Woman Facilitator. VTDance has been a laboratory and outlet for Thomas' solo and collaborative performance projects since 2002. He launched a junior company, VTDance II, in 2022 to mentor and nurture college-age male dancers, preserve a repertoire legacy, and develop new work. VTDance has significant reach throughout the DC/Maryland/Virginia region and is a driving artistic and spiritual force in the Baltimore community where it is based. The concert program of Moving Dialogues Redux included the following description: "VTDance builds on the use of contemporary dance, improvisation, text/movement, a variety of sound sources, and collaborations with other artists including dancers, musicians, poets, visual artists, and others [to be discovered]."  Visit www.vtdance.org

During the radio program, On Being, Krista Tippet recently conversed with Kate DeCamillo, who writes profound and beautiful stories for children. Their conversation revolved around the question, how do we tell the truth and make the truth bearable? Their conclusion was through love, through love of the world. Truth and love motivate Vincent Thomas who tells equally profound and beautiful stories through dance.

Dancer: Vincent Thomas | Photo: Nick Hood Photography

I did not take notes on the performance of VTDance at Baltimore Theater Project on March 12, 2022 as I had not intended to review it. The experience of my time in that shared space has stayed with me and compelled me to write about it retrospectively. In the absence of notes there are many details that I cannot remember, but I do remember movement that was grounded and authentic: space and time yielding to the realness of a glance or simple gesture; beautiful crouches and leans; the closeness of humans. I remember the feelings these elicited in me. It was a grounding and restorative experience to be in the presence of Vincent Thomas and the artists he gathered. Thomas communes with others through dance. He creates a space of sanctuary, celebration, invitation, and hope. The emotional exhaustion and despair that I, like many, have been carrying these days began to unwind over the course of the program.

The evening’s six dances were sequenced as a communal journey or process. One piece built upon another until, by the end, a sense of hope and wholeness had been restored. Speak Space was an organic and lovely 50th birthday salute to Baltimore Theater Project. Vincent Thomas’ movement intimately addressed the familiar space he was dancing in and the art and artists whose spirits inhabit it. From a seat in the center of the audience, Kristin Putchinski contemplated the history of the theater and conversed with Thomas and the audience. The conversation became a spoken and danced duet when Putchinski joined Thomas on stage. Speak Space was like a toast; you pause to acknowledge something of merit and then swallow a delightful drink.

Inbox | Dancers: Vincent Thomas, Kristen Putchinski | Photo: Nick Hood Photography

Guitarist Julian Peterson, replaced Putchinski as Thomas’ duet partner in the next dance, Inbox. The chair from which Peterson played was amidst stacks of newspapers piled against the back scrim. The solid stacks of newspapers crowded the back of the stage the way news stays in the back of my mind these days; ever present. The electronically amplified intricacies of Petersen’s melodies were organically amplified by the fullness of Thomas’ movement, breath, and presence. This skilled, fluid movement was counterpointed by Thomas’ capacity to draw deeply from a well of stillness, quiet, and interiority. At the end of Inbox Thomas became an information gatherer when he asked each person in the audience to write one wish on the back of an index card. These cards would be collected to create an archive to spark Thomas’ future work.

Inbox | Dancer: Vincent Thomas | Guitarist: Julien Peterson | Photo: Nick Hood Photography

A third duet between Thomas and Clay Taliaferro, a revered elder of the dance world, provided the core of the evening’s program. Gardens of Clay, Thomas explained, was intentionally presented as a “work in process (not in progress.)” A recorded text by project documentarian, Dr. Gaynell Sherrod set up a dialogue between present and past to give the audience an inkling of the vast experience, history, and siblinghood of artists and thinkers contained within Taliaferro’s being like rings inside a mighty tree. Taliaferro, a dancer of immense intelligence and ability in his younger years, continues to radiate gallant power in his eighties. Indeed, the recorded text centers around a meeting between Mr. Taliaferro and the great soprano Leontyne Price, who saw him dance in London in 1967 and told him that he danced as gloriously “as a gazelle.” As Mr. Taliaferro recollected in the recorded performance text, and later in conversation with me, Price “saw” Taliaferro as an artist and as a human; that “seeing” was a gift that he still treasures.

Although Taliaferro’s physical ability has inevitably diminished, the intelligence of his dancing has not. Taliaferro’s powerful presence throughout this program derived from his authenticity, generosity, vulnerability, and sense of self. Gardens of Clay had a lovely improvisational sequence of woven individual pathways and meetings between Taliaferro and Thomas. They met again downstage where they sat side by side as companions and equals. The beautiful gestures of this seated duet framed their faces drawing attention to their eyes as they looked outward together. It was like a prayer to the universe or a beacon to others;  as if to say, “Let us come together, look within, and move toward light.”

Gardens of Clay | Dancers: Clay Taliaferro & Vincent Thomas | Photo: Nick Hood Photography

Gardens of Clay has been conceived as a multi-year project involving several creative residencies with Thomas, Taliaferro, and their creative team. The complete cycle of etudes will be premiered in 2024.

Words are integral to Vincent Thomas’ art, and he chooses them with care. The subtitle of this project,  A Work in Process, recalls the chain of nurturance of which Clay Taliaferro is a mighty link. He was a favored son of Jose Limon and Donald McKayle and has passed on their legacies, and those of others, to younger generations of dancers. Through his own example as a performer and through teaching, choreographing, and coaching, Mr. Taliaferro has nurtured a great many dancers including Vincent Thomas. Even today, he continues to do so as the following two pieces in this program demonstrated.

Pursuit of Hope, set to music by Christian Cherry, included projections and recorded readings from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence. The title’s allusion to the famous phrase, “pursuit of happiness” made me consider the significance of the substituted word, hope.  Vincent Thomas is concerned with the rift between the universal language of the preamble and the lived realities of Black Americans. Pursuit of Hope might then refer to the pursuit of justice; the struggle to rectify systems of exclusion so that stated ideals become real for everyone.

Stage light shone on the pillars of newspapers piled against the back wall of the stage. They were a material reminder of the weightiness of history and the crushing information overload through which we must navigate in the 21st century. Four young men, Elias Brzezinski, Mikhail Gordon, Yasir Jones, and Brandon Palmer, rummaged through the newspapers as if searching for something. They tore the newspapers apart and reveled in the light substance of the liberated pages. All four dancers then turned toward the audience and moved  together in a close-knit band. This was the most concentrated dance movement of the evening; they moved with elevated hearts, open arms, soaring jumps, spiraling lifts, and the grace and appetite of youth. The bond between the dancers and the direct frontal facing of the choreography proclaimed their power. I watched these young dancers. Faced with their beauty; I did feel hope. The image of Taliaferro as a gazelle echoed.

Pursuit of Hope | Dancers: Elias Brzezinski, Mikhail Gordon, Yasir Jones, Brandon Palmer | Photo: Nick Hood Photography

Vincent Thomas turned to the audience and asked each of us to consider our own pursuits of hope. While we wrote on the back of our index cards, dancers unrolled a floor covering that depicted a labyrinth. Petersen resumed playing guitar and the full community of dancers -Thomas, Putchinski, Taliaferro, and young men- began traversing it in Step, a walking meditation that Thomas devised from an experience with Nancy Romita, his colleague in the dance program at Towson University. The program noted that this unicursal labyrinth “expresses the metaphor for moving with presence and traveling with compassion and hope.”

The awkwardness of real life became evident as the dancers improvised along the spiral pathway. They sometimes found themselves crowded in “traffic jams” and always found themselves in the uncertainty of the moment. Taliaferro was a compelling figure to witness here; devoid of all pretense, he brought quiet attention to being himself in the moment and to “seeing” the younger humans traveling around him. The authenticity that Taliaferro and Thomas emanated on the pathway was a centering force that guided the young dancers to shed their need to please or impress. It was a lesson for the younger dancers and for the audience. Taliaferro and Thomas seemed to radiate the message: “Let us each find a way to be as we truly are and at the same time to experience the saving power of being with others.”

Thomas invited audience members to leave their seats so that we too could experience traveling through the labyrinth. After two years of personal isolation and collective tragedy, it felt like a miracle to be together and to experience live dance performance. Now we were even being invited to participate! I watched as people moved through the labyrinth’s swirling path. In my mind, I still heard Leontyne Price in the gorgeous recording of  I Wish I knew How It Would Feel to Be Free that had accompanied Mr. Taliaferro’s featured dance earlier in the evening. My ears heard laughter –real laughter– emanating from children traversing the labyrinth on the stage of Baltimore Theater Project. The space was filled by the hum of human beings meeting, talking, and walking together. It was a sanctuary.

Step | People from the audience | Photo: Lisa Green-Cudek