Nnenna Freelon and Evidence Dance Celebrate Lady Day at Apollo Premiere

Daniel Kassell By

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—Nnenna Freelon
Nnenna Freelon, Ronald K. Brown and Evidence Dance Company
The Blueprint of a Lady
Apollo Theater, NYC
November 10, 2007

Subtitled "The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday," a concept of vocalist Nnenna Freelon in collaboration with choreographer-dancer Ronald K. Brown and his Evidence Dance Company, the occasion was introduced by Jonelle Procope, President of the Apollo Foundation, as the "the first Art & Soul presentation of The Apollo Performing Arts Series.

The Apollo Theater event was preceded by a Friday evening "Collaborative Spirit" interview moderated by NJPAC's Baraka Sele to draw out the performers' explanation of this piece about Billie Holiday's life in song and dance. Asked by Ms. Sele where the idea originated, Freelon responded: "We all have dreams. Billie intrigued me and remained in my dreams. She went on to explain that during her first meeting with Ronald K. Brown they just talked about Billie Holiday, after which he went to see her perform "Them There Eyes.
"All I could see was flowers for a gal who was abused, Brown related. Ms. Freelon then "let spirit and the body do what it will do, assisting Mr. Brown "to translate her vision into dance." The musicians were Brandon McCune, who arranged and performed on piano; Wayne Batchelor, bass; Eric Kennedy, drums—all of whom "added creative energy. Finally we learned that Freelon decided that Billie's life ought to be a celebration instead of the tragedy and pain that writers previously created as an image of the celebrity Billie Holiday.

The program notes by Pam Green describe Blueprint of a Lady as "a multi-arts performance piece based upon the life and legacy of Billie Holiday. It is not biographical . . . it uses the lexicon of jazz to tell a universal story of triumph and redemption. The musicians, dancers and Freelon's voice "flow like a composition, subtly shifting between body, the eye, the ear, and the heart.

From the first number, Rodgers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" with dancer Clarice Young, to the pe-intermission trilogy of "A Letter from the Trees/Strange Fruit/Willow Weep for Me with Tiffany Jackson and the dance company, this Apollo audience was spellbound by the drama and original dance style artistically choreographed and artfully directed by Ronald K. Brown. My guest Jessie Reiss, a dance aficionado, explained that Brown's dancers "created a rich tapestry from movements borrowed from traditional African dance and Black American choreographers like Donald McKayle, who was trained in the tradition of Martha Graham. Graham, the guiding spirit of modern dance, was known for her fall-and- recover movements, using the upper torso with frenetic arm movements along with lyrical turns or expansive jetés adapted from classical ballet.

Brown used elaborate solos, duets and intricate stage patterns either across or around the proscenium arch to demonstrate Billie Holiday's feelings of rejection, joy at realizing acceptance, and victory in recovery of personal innocence while three dancers surrounded Ms Freelon as she sang. This style contrasts with Frankie Manning's Savoy and Cotton Club dancers, an approach emphasizing pair dancing and sharp- looking dance shoes that emit slides and/or tap sounds in time to the music. Ronald K. Brown's dancers were all barefoot—as if dancing on the dirt of Congo Square, the site of the beginnings of the ancestry of an African-American art form in New Orleans circa late 1860's.

An exceptional number in the second half was "Lover Man," with Freelon wearing a Carribean blue sheath dress, standing mostly motionless except for her arm movements. This song (which became a classic standard after Holiday's performance) was composed by one of Billie's accompanists, Ram Ramirez, whom I heard play it many times at uptown Broadway's West End Café, where he was requested to do so by then- Columbia University student Phil Schaap.

Dancer Ronald K. Brown appeared in the role of a seducer, wearing a tan top and belted brown slacks, diverting Freelon with suggestive dance movements and finally drawing her across the stage as she sang Harry Woods' "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." As the two cavorted, Brandon McCune's blues-inflected piano and bassist Wayne Batchelor each got well- deserved solo exposure.

The finale, Simon and Marks' "All of Me," included The Evidence Company—Arcell Cabuag, Shani Collins, Khetanya Henderson, Otis Donovan Herring, Tiffany Jackson, Juel Lane, Keon Thoulouis and Clarice Young— followed by a standing ovation by this responsive Apollo audience.

Nnenna Freelon's Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday (Concord, 2005) was released to coincide with the 90th anniversary of Holiday's birth. As she stated then, "Billie Holiday really sang what she had to say in her own way. That's one of the things that was so impressive about her; she was a survivor, and had an absolutely brilliant, innovative concept of her own. She really sang to her time . . . and so do I. Further explaining the project, "I decided to name this CD a blueprint because I wanted to create a roadmap, using her voice as a musician to build something new. It's about taking what she stood for as an artist rather than how she sounded.

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