REVIEW: “On the Brink” by Maverick Lemons Dance Project at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

From the DC Dance Journalism Project

REVIEW: On the Brink by Maverick Lemons Dance Project at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

by Michelle Hayes

The Maverick Lemons Dance Project in On The Brink created an experience of courage, strength, freedom, risk, justice, and hope through the stories of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, the time of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Freedom Riders. This performance came at a very important time in our society and had me making connections from the injustice and struggles from JFK’s presidency to the society we live in today.

As I walked closer to the Millennium Stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to find a seat, I became aware of the candles placed under a few chairs along the stairs leading to the stage and a line of candles horizontally placed across the middle of the stage. Shortly after, a moving flame was projected onto the back wall along with jazz music that kept cutting in and out. I felt that music should have been continuous. A mourning yet hopeful environment was set.

The show began with all the dancers, dressed in bright colors and clothing from the 60’s, entering in motion with a mood of celebration. They moved in unison and individually with energy through circular pathways and around each other. There was a joyous excitement to the scene they were portraying. As this continued, a female dancer, dressed in black and carrying a black umbrella entered through the audience onto the stage. She walked slowly with authority and confidence, and I immediately knew she represented death in some way. As she crossed the front of the stage, a gun shot sound was fired, the party died, and the dancers dropped screaming to the floor.

Through a voice over, stories of those who experienced the JFK shooting were told while dancers seemed to be trying to depict the feeling of each individual story through movement. I had a hard time connecting the choreography to the text. I saw the mourning, devastation, and confusion through the upper body contractions and arms grasping heads. Dancers moved with a heavy sensation. It was overdramatized through the use of literal gestures and facial expressions.

The next part really stuck out in my mind. The dancers broke the fourth wall as they slowly entered from the back of the audience, through the aisles, holding a purple fabric over the middle section of seating. This fourth wall was broken a few times throughout the performance and really made me feel a part of the experience of reflecting on these past events. It was a reminder that I am a part of this society and that tragic events that happen outside my local community do have an effect on us all as a nation.

As the dancers slowly moved the purple fabric down the aisles, individuals quickly ran up and down the aisles away from the group but always returning. There was heartache in their slow and fast paced linear pathways. The spoking and angular movement had an energy of mourning and longing for hope for something better. For me, it felt as if I was at a funeral ceremony. The song that played, “Good Goodbye,” by Lianne La Havas had the line “I don’t need faith, I just want proof.” This was a very heavy statement to hear repeated during this piece. The dancers were desperate for reasoning behind the tragic events, and faith didn’t seem to be enough to provide hope. When they reached the stage, showing anguish and sorrow, one dancer wrapped up the fabric and laid it down on the floor, as they all slowly moved away. The movement itself during this section did not stick out in my mind as much as the concept and environment the dancers created.

The performance was a bit of an emotional roller coaster that really covered the highs and lows of society during this time period. The next piece was another celebratory dance for the election of John F. Kennedy. This was confusing since I had thought the beginning piece was the celebration of his election; the out of order presentation threw me off. The party slowly dissipated as the group realized Kennedy’s motives might not actually fit with what the people were in need of.

This led into a very powerful section that started with four men sitting on stools in colorful shirts, gesturing with direct movements of pushing and resisting. A group of female dancers in black entered with contrasting quick and energized movement. This led to the women verbally and physically harassing these men of color, who did not fight back with violence, but rather remained strong together in their silence. This section helped me make the connection between the harassment and injustices from the time of Kennedy to now.

This was followed by a voice singing ‘hallelujah’ from offstage. Dancers began to enter the space chiming in with their own hallelujahs, bringing hope to the stage. They started moving slowly with caution as they rebuilt the hope within each other. This movement became more energized and fuller as they lifted their spirits up in support.

During this section, there was text projected on the back wall about the journey of the Freedom Riders. This section ended with all the company members moving with struggle to the front of the stage one by one and linking arms. They were stiff and strong in the way they held themselves. This seemed to highlight the need to come together as a society to be able to get through trauma and injustice, and it left a very vivid image that lingered with me.

Between pieces throughout the show, there was a storyteller, Marty Lamar, who would inform the audience through text about historical facts and events needed to support the movement and progression of the show. This shaped the performance into a story. The projections of facts on the back wall also contributed to the storytelling and background information needed to connect all the sections of the performance. The text was crucial to the movement overall. Specific movements were not what had a lasting impression for me but rather the relationships and environment created through the combination of emotions and text.

The next big transition included a change in costume, which took me to modern day. The dancers were in plain white tops and black pants. The movement was fierce and portrayed fighting back through strong energy, quick changes in spatial directions, and jumps. The lighting was a deep red. One line from music that stuck out for me was a quote from JFK: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

There was a lot of fear portrayed in the beginning of the performance, but this changed to determination, hope, and a sense of rising up in the ending of the show. The final section, a high-energy dance, addressed the need to rise above the troubles and have hope for something better. The dancers were playful and jumped into an open space in the stage floor. There was a sense of risk and support between the company members as they helped each out of the open space and in and out of the floor. This left me feeling inspired and hopeful for the struggles our society is facing because of their similarities to those during the JFK presidency.

Overall, the performance had a cohesive storyline that was told through movement, projections, text, and song. However, movement concepts should be developed further to support such complex themes; some of the movements had the simplicity of what I’ve seen in modern dance classes. The dancers were athletically trained and specific in their lines. I am excited to see how Maverick Lemons Dance Project grows as a company and how they continue working this piece. It is so important for artists to reflect on the past and continue to pass on that history to society so we can learn to avoid repeating the mistakes of history.

On the Brink performance was a part of the JKFC: A Centennial Celebration of John F. Kennedy and was one of two recipients for the 2016 Local Dance Commissioning Project. The show premiered on October 14th and 15th, 2016 and was choreographed and directed by Maverick Lemons.