REVIEW: VTDance: ‘What’s Going On: Life, Love and Social Justice,’ at Joe’s Movement Emporium

What’s Going On: Life, Love and Social Justice
Choreography by Vincent E. Thomas, Sylvia Soumah, Ralph Glenmore
Joe’s Movement Emporium
Mount Rainier, Md.
November 2, 2018

By Ramona Harper

The soulful social commentary of Marvin Gaye’s music comes fully alive through dance in What’s Going On: Life, Love and Social Justice, a full-length feel-good work that touches the soul and soothes the heart as it made a powerful statement for social change November 2-4 at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, Md.

VTDance’s tribute to Marvin Gaye in What’s Going On:  Life, Love and Social Justice is a feast for the eyes, the ears and the soul as Vincent E. Thomas and eight performers (Heinz Adjakwah, Rita Jean Kelly Burns, Tony Byrd, Patrick Casimir, Stephanie Crockett, Sara Herrera, Jessica Emily Peasant Mncube and Sylvia Soumah) and a guest troupe of dancers meld Gaye’s passionate lyrics and cool R&B sound with the exuberant choreography by Thomas, Sylvia Soumah and Ralph Glenmore.

I wondered how an audience would be able to sit through a full-length work based on the stirring music of Marvin Gaye without wanting to get up and dance.  But the choreographers knew that sitting erect through a Marvin Gaye retrospective would be too much for an audience so they got us on our feet straight-away. A “Marvin Gaye Game Show” Trivial Pursuit got the audience participating in a sneaky way: Thomas gave the gift of dance as competing teams practiced a hand dance move and the Electric Slide to a couple of Marvin’s best-loved hits.

Police brutality at an anti-war rally in the early 1970s inspired Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” His protest songs influenced a generation as Gaye became a political voice for social transformation. This dance work, influenced by the message of Marvin’s music, creatively fuses great choreography and passionate dancing with music filled with “so much soul and so much heart” that it continues to reverberate in today’s troubling times.

Add a dose of dramatic spot-lighting by Ben Levine plus video projections by Sujan Shrestha of Civil Rights icons, Gaye singing his soulful version of the national anthem at the NBA All Stars in ’83, and glimpses of protest marches from around the world and you have a creative catalyst for celebration that examines our collective community’s concerns through movement.

Jazz and modern dance moves morph into freestyle social dance as funky dancers groove to the melodies of some of the best dance music ever produced. Hits such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Pride and Joy” and the sensuous “Let’s Get It On” are scaffolding for thrusting hips, dizzying pirouettes, honey-do duos and the energetic synergy of performers linked arm-in-arm in sparkling unison.

An inner city, blue-lit basement is the scene for dancing the “Hitchhike”: lovelorn couples slow-drag only to break loose in joyous stag leaps and outstretched arms. A “Soul Train” caravan opens up for funky solos. A resurrected “Motown Revue” lights up the stage in sheer kinetic energy.

The choreography marks the heights and the depths of Gaye’s life with trembling legs and arms held close to the heart as if to mimic personal demons when drugs and paranoia snatched away the joy that was always right under the surface. Dancers break free in flights of joyous fancy only to struggle in writhing pain on the floor. Then they stand up tall as if in defiance to all things that assault the senses.

A Washingtonian and minister’s son who grew up in Southwest, Marvin Gaye lived through turbulent times, not only in his own personal life but also during the Civil Rights era, when the nation was struggling to change and move forward. VTDance’s performance of What’s Going On: Life, Love and Social Justice takes musical moments from the ‘60s and ‘70s and infuses them with new life and new meaning through dance, but leaving one still posing the same question, “What is going on?” today.

Photos: Vincent E. Thomas in VTDance’s What’s Going On, top
VTDance in What’s Going On, photos courtesy VTDance

Ramona Harper is a retired Foreign Service Officer career diplomat. While in the Foreign Service, her specialization was public diplomacy. Her overseas postings were Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Panama and Germany where she presented American visual and performing artists on behalf of the U.S. Government. Before joining the Foreign Service, Ramona was a counselor and administrator in higher education. Her academic work includes a Master of Science degree in Counselor Education from Florida International University and a Master of Science degree from the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces. She is a lifelong dance student and lover of dance performance.