Four years have passed since the Xclaim Dance Company first found artistic inspiration in traditional spirituals.
In 2017, the Central Ohio Jazz Troupe presented a program called simply “Spirituals.” In addition to dancing, the show featured spirituals – religious songs that were developed and sung by black people during slavery – sung live by Diane Ransom.
Xclaim artistic director Mariah Layne French intended to return to what had been fruitful territory, but before the follow-up program, “Spirituals II”, could reach stages last March, the coronavirus pandemic got in the way.
“Of course COVID hit and we had to put the plans on hold,” French said. “We literally stopped just before the show was scheduled.”
Now, a year later, the long-delayed “Spirituals II” will finally reach audiences in central Ohio. The show will be presented May 7-9 on an outdoor stage set up behind the Xclaim building at 2141 Indianola Ave.
“We’re going to put all our theatrical lighting on and put a dance floor on the stage,” said French, whose company usually performs at the Fisher Theater at the Columbus Dance Theater.
Reserved seating will be available for $ 20, but the public eager to sit away from ideal sight lines can take up their own chair to monitor a requested donation.
By bringing together a variety of dance styles, and not just the jazz genre Xclaim is best known for, French hopes the program will reflect the range of movements that will emerge from the African diaspora.
“We have been primarily a jazz-based society, and without these African diaspora roots we would be lost,” French said. “There is no jazz without him. Artistically, for me, it’s expressing an appreciation for the richness of this diversity.
To carry out the program, Xclaim decided to partner with Tru Kingdom Mega Crew, a hip-hop dance troupe led by J. Shannon Filmore, also a dancer with and resident choreographer of Xclaim.
The 12 dancers that will be seen in next weekend’s schedule represent a mix of those associated with Xclaim and those who perform with Tru Kingdom. The dancers have been rehearsing and training together for a year.
“We talked about not only diversifying the look of the business, but also giving and enriching the business with a different style,” Filmore said. “That’s what (Tru Kingdom) really brings to the table.”
Although the companies have collaborated before, they have never undertaken a one-season mix before. And the two sets of dancers learn from each other.
“We have mostly ballet / contemporary dancers learning the hip-hop movement and then the latter: hip-hop dancers learning more contemporary or ballet-like movement,” Filmore said. “We’re generally in our own genres.”
As with the previous performance, “Spirituals II” will feature traditional spirituals sung by Ransom between dance pieces, including “Go Down Moses” and “This Little Light of Mine”. But, true to the eclectic nature of the program, other types of music will also be heard.
“There’s funk, there’s soul, there’s hip-hop,” French said.
The two-part program will begin with “A Prophet and a Parable”, a jazz piece choreographed by the French to recordings by the witty “Elijah Rock” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”.
“It’s kind of in a (Bob) Fosse style,” French said. “I trained with one of the dancers from Fosse, which would make me a second generation.
Other work on the bill includes “Exodus.” Choreographed by French dancer and Xclaim Corinne Wood, the dance uses modern dance and Afro-fusion movement to evoke the story of the Underground Railroad and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
“People in the Pews” – choreographed by French, Wood and fellow Xclaim dancer Megan Blum – explores the role of organized religion in the development of the civil rights movement.
“It’s an unexpected juxtaposition of things: we’re playing funk music in the context of a worship service, which you won’t hear,” French said. “It’s telling these stories in a unique and glued way.”
The program will also feature an all-female group of amateur African immigrant and refugee dancers from Praise Chapel International, a church on Sinclair Road, who have been training with French for about a year and a half.
“I try to help them feel comfortable with their roots and even proud of their roots,” French said. “We are making an Africa-based movement together on a weekly basis.”
The Praise Chapel group, which will perform to music including a version of The Lord’s Prayer in Swahili, initially included only girls, but quickly grew to include adult women.
“We invited some of their moms, who would be sitting in the hallways watching,” French said. “It has been a lot of fun helping them through the movement. Many of them had never moved expressively before that.
“Spirituals II” will end with “Now is the Time” by Filmore, a dance mixing excerpts from Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech with gospel and jazz tunes. All 12 dancers will be featured in the play.
“The play is really a call to action,” Filmore said. “What are you doing? Are you doing what you can? Are we all doing what we can to fight for peace and freedom?”
In one look
The Xclaim Dance Company will present the outdoor show “Spirituals II” at 8 p.m. May 7-8 and 4 p.m. May 9 at the Xclaim Center for the Arts, 2141 Indianola Ave. Tickets for reserved seats cost $ 20; donations are requested for “bring your own chair” seats. For more details, as well as up-to-date seating information, visit xclaimarts.org.