As a child, when I helped my uncles prime the tobacco in their fields, I did not realize I was dancing. Now I know there was choreography to our repeated gestures across the fields.
Harvesting sugar cane, whose bamboo-like stalks easily stand two times a human's height, has its rhythms too. A field filled with them isn't just an imposing backdrop; walking into the thick of one can be a dislocating experience. Jean Toomer had a reason when he wrote, "Time and space have no meaning in a canefield."
Toomer's book, Cane, became one of the neglected masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance. Its evocations of nature were rich; his portraits of aging laborers were critical and poetically photographic.
But other factors made it problematic for everyday readers in the 1920s. Cane's characters were largely antiheroes, grappling awkwardly with frequently unwise passions. And Toomer was frank in addressing the consequences of his characters' sexuality; he wrote of androgyny, interracial love triangles and the people who sprang from them. An earth-based mysticism—sometimes frustratingly opaque, sometimes bordering on the messianic—runs through the prose, poetry and theatrical scene work of his book. And Toomer, who was a biracial native of Washington, D.C., didn't shy away from the growing cultural rift between Northern and Southern, and urban and rural, African-Americans. Their mutual distrust colors Cane's memorable closing episode, "Kabnis."
I want to think that Toomer would be in sympathy with a new dance adaptation by Thomas DeFrantz's SLIPPAGE and Wideman-Davis Dance. Like the book that inspired it, CANE is a hybrid, a mix of choreography, videography and experimental set design and sound. Its footage of modern-day cane fields, projected onto designer Eto Otitigbe's series of opaque white tubes set in four locations on stage, is in contrast to vintage photographs of the worn faces of old laborers, storefronts and primitive shacks. At times, both real-time and previously recorded video of the performers are superimposed upon those images as the dancers perform in front of and behind the various set pieces on stage. Sound designer Jamie Keesecker constructed a collage built from nature recordings, snippets of oral histories, period jazz and children's songs, which is set against acoustic and electronic textures and beats.
The choreography, by Tanya Wideman and Thaddeus Davis, is an appealing hybrid as well. It's a mix of the crisp and lyrical, with disciplines including ballet, modern and African dance. The opening courtship dance between Amber Mayberry's androgynous farmer in bib overalls and Tanya Wideman's ponytailed girl in a white dress is charming and character-driven, featuring wagging fingers and wide-eyed lifts. Still, the farmer leaves the girl alone onstage when her birth pangs begin, in a striking solo delivery scene set to percussion.
The following scene of interracial curiosity, passion and their aftermath seems an adaptation of Toomer's short story "Becky." Kalin Morrow's woman in pink circles around Davis before their tempestuous pairing.
But this elliptical retelling discards a number of the story's details, while depicting others in metaphors that range from obvious to oblique. Similar approaches in a number of other scenes may well frustrate viewers trying to match up choreographic sequences to specific sources in the text. And though entire sections of Toomer's work focus on urbanites in Chicago and Washington theaters, cafes and nightspots, DeFrantz and his collaborators remain down home throughout this hourlong work.
In CANE's various sections, white and black characters scrutinize one another, their physicalized interactions suggesting a gradual interplay and changing of power dynamics in the South. That emphasis, however, leads the work to plateau toward the end, during overlong solo sequences depicting struggle, supplication, prayer and, occasionally, deliverance.
The only technical miscalculations involved uncomfortably loud high-frequency sounds in a latter section and a video pixilation effect that briefly made a woman's face appear to be crawling with insects.
Still, CANE remains an evocative, allusive homage to an underappreciated classic. It's telling when the sudden removal of all the video in one section seems to leave the characters disoriented. In that moment, DeFrantz appears to ask what these people could have been, had their lives not been defined by exhausting manual labor and the imbalance of power between races and sexes.
At the end, the characters retreat behind the four projection surfaces. In silhouette, they peer at us between the individual "reeds" on stage. The question raised is obvious: What can we still see of them and their world?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fields of dreams and passion."