"Blueprint of a Lady: The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday"
Nnenna Freelon and Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
December 7, 2006
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2006 by Alexandra Tomalonis
It sounded like a good idea: a collaborative peformance between a singer (Nnenna Freelon) and a choreographer (Ronald K. Brown) to celebrate the world of Billie Holiday, using Holiday's music as the unifying device. At least this promised lots of good music. Many of Holiday's signature songs were included: "God Bless the Child," "What is a Lady?", "Now Baby or Never," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and about a half-dozen others. Freelon moved throughout the piece (approximately one hour, plus intermission), interacting with the dancers, sometimes seeming to be a part of Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, sometimes commenting on what the the dancers were doing, sometimes making the dancers seem imaginary, dancing out Holiday's struggles and dreams. It really was a nice idea.
Trouble is, there was an emptiness at the center of the piece: Billie Holiday. Freelon has a smooth, strong voice. Lots of energy, almost peppy. As she sang, one could hear Holiday's voice, so smoky and raw and plaintive, hovering over the music. The two didn't fit. Why try to evoke the world of such an artist and cast someone whose talents are so entirely different? Freelon's singing did not express pain, nor evoke a suffering soul. Instead, the songs bopped along cheerily, and for once I wished for a tape of the real thing rather than a live performance.
The pain and struggle of the African-American experience, of which Holiday was such an eloquent voice, was best realized by the stunning backdrop by Romare Bearden. It's a huge collage called "The Street," filled wth faces, mostly of back men and boys, layered over, under and around city streets. The little boys, especially, had huge eyes that pulled you into their world. Some of the young men's faces could have been those of fresh corpses. There was enough material in Bearden's "Street" to fill an evening.
The dancers, dressed in unflattering costumes by Omotayo Wunmi Olaya and Carolyn "Meckha" Cherry that cut the body, especially the women's bodies, in the most awkward places and made everyone look heavy, gave it all they had, but Brown's choreography — all stamping feet and flailing limbs — was so simple and repetitive that the piece felt over long before it was. Brown's work is very sincere, often drawing on his religious background. The spiritual sincerity is so heartfelt and true that it almost saves his pieces, and is certainly worthy of respect, but that's not enough to make it theater. The other ghost I kept sensing was Alvin Ailey's, a man who reaped such riches from the same material. The irony is that Ailey's own company no longer produces such work. They're on a different track now — one that Freelon's bold, contemporary sound might well suit.
The excellent musicians, who accompanied Freelon and the dancers from the stage, were Brandon McCune (piano); Waune Batchelor (bass); Kinah Toto (drums); and Beverly Botsford (percussionist).
Volume 4, No. 44
December 11, 2006
copyright ©2006 Alexandra Tomalonis