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In a just world, blessings would fall onto every young artist: plenty of family and neighborhood support, devoted public-school arts education programs, private scholarships for professional training, and the bestowal of international commissions and grants before the artist could reach 30.
Robert Henry Johnson has had all this and more. Strong childhood roots in the Western Addition, a scholarship from the San Francisco Ballet, a high school education at School of the Arts, commissions from Canadian and European ballet companies, and, as of this year, a long roster of funders listed on the back of his program. Why him? It must be the contagious quality of Johnson's home-grown style; he makes dances for audiences hungry to see a celebration of community as much as individuality, of joy and spirit as much as innovation and risk.
In the first weekend of his company's fourth season, Johnson brought back two audience favorites: the comic seduction duet Hot House Flowers and the showpiece of choreographic invention Road to the Yellow Carnival. The Learning Ground was back also, but this time with a new second act. The heavily weighted three hours of material also included Ives, Angelitos Negros, and two never-ending, unnecessary, not-ready-to-be-reviewed works in progress. The second weekend, opening Thursday, July 18, promises a better overall program with one evening-length work, Bio, accompanied live by Midnight Voices.
Johnson's range of movement styles is so vast, it's a surprise when he uses choreographic restraint. Without any excess, The Learning Ground was breezy and spacious, soaring alongside the lull and wails of Funkadelic and Prince. A gem of a duet opened the dance. Johnson jumped into the arms of Monique Strauss; under her strong care, he branched and rotated in regal poses. Four other dancers ran and circled around the duo; the gusts of movement consecrated the space. All six dancers glided their hands from head to hips, making a cascading motion; a ritualized cleansing of their own personal territory after consecrating the communal area. A lush anticipation built as the dancers circled and recircled the stage. The energy crested with a loose, wild duet between Thomas McDonnell and Sarah Fanoe to the swells of Prince's "Purple Rain." Road to the Yellow Carnival, commissioned by Ballet British Columbia in 1993, showed Johnson's eclectic movement imagination at its best. The dancers teased together signature moves from African, street, and modern dance and ballet into a goofy narrative of a road trip taken by a traveling trio and a soothing chorus of four female dancers. The four women stretched into a row of arabesques, but also got down on the beat by slapping their standing heels in syncopation. They snapped elegant, balletic arms into flexed reaches, contracted into curved, modernist bundles of potential energy, broke into full-hipped, African jumps. Each move had as much finesse as the next; nothing in the mixture of dance styles seemed out of place.
The 11-member company and the four guest artists (School of the Arts dance teacher Elvia Marta and San Francisco Ballet guest artists Ikolo Griffin, Yolanda Jordan, and Chidozie Nzerem) were inexhaustible, generous. Without exception, Johnson and the dancers gave it up, and the audience ate the results with relish. Claps, snaps, hoots, and cheers made sure no especially fine pirouette or really juicy bit of partnering went unacknowledged.
The Robert Henry Johnson Dance Company performs Thursday through Sunday, July 18-21, at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center in S.F.; call 392-4400.
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