Ashley Roland, the co-artistic director of BodyVox, did the introductions for the first concert by Body Vox’s resident artist and his new company, Darvejon Jones Dance Ensemble. “He emits extreme joy,” Roland said, almost as if Jones was a force of nature.
Roland’s observation held true as the company and Jones moved through the program. But though joy rang out loudly in the virtuosity and pizzazz of the choreography and the dancers, there was shadow, too. Jones, whose work shared the eight-dance program with company dancers/artistic associate choreographers Brent Luebbert, Jillian St. Germain, and Sara Parker, transmits his account of the darker rumblings of American culture clearly as well.
Think of this first concert as a sampler platter, perhaps: a little sweetness, then a helping of something more complicated. That’s how both Acts of the show played out. The sweet came first, then the longer commentaries of Parker’s The Reckoning and Jones’ Allegiance acted as closers, adding depth and social context to the evening.
When I chatted with Jones over the phone the week prior, he mentioned that giving other artists visibility was a key value for him. Coming to Portland from the vibrant dance scenes of Los Angeles and San Francisco, Jones found himself wanting to add more to the dance community here. That translated both into his decision to convene the Darvejon Jones Dance Ensemble in July of 2019, and the inclusion of the choreography of four of its dancers on the program. He also included projection designer Jenelle Gaerlan and lighting designer Mako Barmon, as well as two visual artists: Amelia Carol and Bobby Coulder, whose work was shown in the lobby of BodyVox during the evening.
The number of collaborators led to a variety of styles and ideas in the work—the sampler platter. The opener, Jones’ own Moderna, was an ode to Lester Horton, Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham’s classical modern dance techniques, with the cast donning slick unitards as they lateral T-turned, contracted in a seated fourth position, and hinged to the floor. For dance geeks, think of the flat-backs, quick turns and group clumps in Alvin Ailey’s masterpiece Revelations and the endlessly changing spatial patterns of Paul Taylor’s Esplanade, paired with moments of calmness that reference Graham’s contraction floorwork techniques. In Portland, where you can find a slew of groovy contemporary classes on any given day but count the number of classical modern dance technique classes offered in a week with maybe two fingers, Moderna’s repertoire is somewhat of a rarity. While most dancers in town can list the modern techniques they trained in, few actively perform those techniques in their pure form today.
Other pieces, like Jones and Germain’s Can We Talk?, Jones’ Self Destruction and Luebbert’s (DE)shelled, utilized a more contemporary blend of movement and played with narratives and props. The three felt like palate-cleansers, simple anecdotes clearing the energy from the piece before and preparing the audience for what was next on the docket.
Jones takes a rather broad approach to making art, with embellishments taking center stage while more deep conceptual undertones interplay with the technically challenging movement. While the work offers a wide array of social commentary, he chooses to layer it within a sheath of virtuosity that lets the audience choose how far they want to delve into the meaning of the work. In a solo piece called Y’all Do Know What Gravity Is, Right? choreographed on company dancer Jenelle Gaerlan by Jones, the press release noted that Jones uses gravity as a lens for understanding oppression and marginalization—a universal way to understand powerful yet unseen forces at work in our society. When we chatted on the phone, he explained it further:
“I use the metaphor of gravity [to talk about oppression], because we all understand and feel that pressure. But, even when we experience oppression, we can pull ourselves out of that oppression by deciding not to be there. I’m not interested in calling out people, but calling them in. Even if people refuse to see the concepts of the piece, the audience will still be able to enjoy it.”
Gaerlan’s execution of the piece was impressive, both in its musicality and technique. Gaerlan, who also designed the projections for the solo, has a sassy and commanding stage presence and precision and that grabbed the attention of the audience. But underneath, the choreography led to the deeper concept. While Jones’ approach to making dance more accessible by offering the audience beautiful movement to focus on definitely achieves its goal of pulling the crowd in—the audience was roaring with cheers for Gaerlan by the end of her solo—I did find myself wishing he’d let the subject matter of his work occupy center stage. In an environment like Portland’s, where I constantly find myself wishing that the people in privileged positions would be challenged more regularly and bluntly, this seems especially necessary.
Sara Parker’s The Reckoning paced the collision of sounds, lights, and movement of her choreographic world with moments stillness that offered space to process and think intuitively about that world. Performed as a trio with Parker, Jones, and Gaerlan dancing side by side, I was struck by how powerful it is to see both a choreographer and an artistic director dance together, rather than watching from the audience or wings. Jones’ performance was a testament to the fact that his heart is in this project, this company, this vision. Barmon’s lighting design included a smoke effect, which left a looming mystery in the air as the piece unfolded. The trio’s connection to one another, even when the space between them expanded, pulled me in, and I found myself in that wonderful place of wanting to see more when the lights dimmed to darkness.
Still, as noted earlier, Jones’ approach comes from a place of love and of joy, which is something the world at large could use a lot of right now. I found myself smiling as I watched the dancers travel through space and partner together. The energy in the room was infectious throughout the evening, and it was clearly indebted to the mindset that Jones brings to art-making.
That mindset, to focus on love, started to change recently. After his father’s death last year, Jones felt it was the appropriate time to birth his art. “It made me question what I was withholding as an artist,” he said. “All of the work has moments of love imbued throughout it. Where I felt not a lot of love from my father, I feel love in my work, love between the artists.”
The evening closed with what Jones’ described as his most important work: Allegiance. Created to summarize the Black experience, address past and present civil rights issues, and to unpack the rhetoric of the Pledge of Allegiance, the piece set out to cover a lot of ground. Shortly after the dance began, a powerful moment signaled the dark themes that were approaching. The group of 12 dancers, spread across the space, all saluted. What followed was a dismantling of this movement, which dropped the choreography and tone down to the floor, perhaps signifying the darkness that lies below the supposed moral standards of respect in our nation’s government—and the political climate as a whole.
One section drew on themes of police brutality and black and brown profiling, with a harsh juxtaposition between the realities facing oppressed communities to the beauty and resilience of spirit amidst it all. Another featured a haunting recording of ‘70s country star Red Sovine’s Pledge of Allegiance. The song tells the story of a schoolroom whose recitation of the pledge becomes dry and meaningless. Sovine goes on to explain each phrase of the pledge and clarify its importance and meaning. For example,
“I pledge allegiance: my love and my devotion
To the flag: a symbol of freedom… and wherever she waves there’s respect, because your loyalty has given her dignity that shouts, ‘freedom is everybody’s job’”
Within the context of Allegiance, the pledge felt wildly uncomfortable and hypocritical. How can we, as a country state that we pledge allegiance to “freedom for all” in a country that has been systemically racist since its birth? Jones combined Sovine’s brutally honest iteration of his devotion to America with the chilling narrative of the real-life experiences of black America in a way that felt fit to be given a whole evening length’s time to dismantle.
The piece pulled in more references to inequality, projecting images across the back screen that depicted civil rights marches from the ‘60s up through our current time, the border crisis, unemployment and housing crises, black lives matter, gay rights, and a slew of other critical issues the US has been facing for over the past century. They all now related to Jones’ dismantling the Pledge of Allegiance, the piece reflecting the scope of just how many barriers face our country from being the land of freedom we recall in the Pledge. Jones could spend the rest of his career as a choreographer unpacking and processing the ideas in this piece alone, through movement and art.
For the time being, Jones is doing what artists do—make work that matters to them and that matters to the community at large. “I’ve always felt the need to do this,” Jones said.
I asked him why he’s waited until now to create his company and premiere the inaugural show. “I’ve struggled with imposter syndrome as we all do,” he replied. “After my father passed away, I felt that when something that traumatic happens, things start to click into place. As a father myself, it’s really important for my child to see me in this way, making work that matters.”
After the company took their final bows, his daughter joined him on stage for Jones’ bow, and she shared that moment of success with him, beaming with a big smile. There was no mistaking where she got that from.