The gritty, intense and sometimes rousingly profane music and performance style of the late James Brown left an indelible mark on American pop culture -- an achievement honored but only occasionally Brown-worthy in "James Brown: Get On the Good Foot, a Celebration in Dance" at the Ahmanson Theatre on Friday.
No, this plotless compendium wasn’t just another slick, mindless energy circus, but choreographic originality and depth remained in short supply.
Co-commissioned by New York's famed Apollo Theater, this 75-minute tribute (running through Sunday afternoon) enlisted slides and sound bites of Brown to anchor 12 segments by 10 choreographers. Some of them settled for witless evocations of the clothes, hair and social attitudes of various periods in Brown’s career.
Others used his lyrics to support clumsy quasi-dramatic portraits of the societal ills and process of radicalization prevalent in the black community.
For instance, Thang Dao’s "Bewildered" propelled an eight-member cast through a bewildering, downbeat action plan and never remotely mustered the raw despair and pertinence needed for Brown’s masterly "Down and Out in New York City."
Souleymane Badolo’s quintet "Benon" kept you intrigued with its sharp, inventive steps and distinctive arm embellishments but left its best movement ideas undeveloped and also never coalesced dramatically.
The smallest-scaled segments proved more successful. In "Live," company artistic director Otis Sallid tried to evoke the dynamism of a Brown performance, placing tap virtuoso Derek K. Grant and three backup dancers behind microphones to step and sway through "Give it Up." Grant’s earlier "Superbad" solo had misfired due to sound imbalances (a problem also plaguing some of Brown’s recorded interview clips), so this was a welcome chance to sample Grant’s intricate percussive powers in a better showcase.
Choreographed by Ephrat Asherle, Jennifer Weber and Sallid, "It’s a Man’s World" defied gender stereotypes through Asherle’s nonstop contortions, gymnastics and breaking. But it went nowhere creatively beyond its obvious political statement and Asherle’s "Out of Sight" solo ran out of ideas almost immediately.
Using music by Ronobir Lahiri intercut with the briefest Brown tape clips, Aakash Odedra based his dancing on the structure and vocabulary of the classical Indian Kathak idiom. But whatever its antique roots, his "Ecstasy" solo created a firestorm of applause through Odedra’s incredible fluidity, brilliant technical sophistication and unbroken devotional focus.
However, nobody outclassed the tireless, 12 Pennsylvania-based modern dance paragons from the Philadanco company who always stayed on the good foot, whatever the challenge.
Beyond the chance to hear James Brown hits on a rich, engulfing theater sound system, the evening’s deepest satisfactions came from Philadanco’s ability to project choreographic details at high speed, to create potent emotional contexts from the slimmest choreographic pretexts and to make a case for galvanic torso movement at a time when many major moderns emphasize soggy balleticisms.
The Ahmanson engagement of "Get on the Good Foot" ends a five-city U.S. tour and commemorates what would have been Brown’s 80th birthday last year (he died in 2006) as well as the 80th anniversary of the Apollo Theatre this year. An international tour is being planned.