With ‘No Boundaries’ Dancer-Choreographer Gesel Mason seeks to ‘unwrap’ African American Dance

Gesel Mason
Gesel Mason

By Steve Sucato

For the fourth installment of the annual [UN]W.R.A.P. (UNdoing Writing, Research and Performance), a week-long symposium where artists and scholars come together to “unwrap” dance at the University of Colorado Boulder, dancer/choreographer Gesel Mason revisits the legacy-building dance series she began in Washington D.C. in 2004. No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers, her evolving archive of original and established solos created by African American choreographers, will be presented September 18-20 at the University’s Charlotte York Irey Theatre.

“One of the things I was thinking about in starting the project in Washington D.C. was that people would always go out to see Alvin Ailey whenever they came to the Kennedy Center, which was fantastic, but there were a lot of other artists I thought the community would be interested in,” says Mason.

Trained as a repertory dancer and not in Horton or other styles that she says would have been associated with “Black Dance” at the time.  “In a lot of ways I thought, I don’t do ‘Black Dance’ even though I am African American,” says Mason. “That label made me feel like I wasn’t a part of that discussion. Over time that has definitely changed and of course I am a part of that conversation and lineage.”

The first No Boundaries and subsequent incarnations have afforded her to work with some of the nation’s leading contemporary choreographers, such as Robert Battle, Donald McKayle, Bebe Miller, David Roussève, Reggie Wilson, Andrea Woods and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.

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Gesel Mason

Currently, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and artistic director of her own Gesel Mason Performance Projects, Mason has been a company member of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Ralph Lemon/Cross Performance Projects and has performed with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Repertory Dance Theatre of Utah.

Mason has also been the recipient of several honors including two Metro DC Dance Awards (2007), the Washington Performing Arts Society’s Pola Nirenska Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance (2009) and the University of Utah’s Distinguished Alumna Award in Fine Arts (2011).

For this latest incarnation entitled [UN]W.R.A.P.: No Boundaries, Mason will again dance several solos including a premiere by Dianne McIntyre. Also on the first half of the program will be works performed by Cleo Parker Robinson Dance and Rennie Harris Grass Roots Project. The program’s second half will be a symposium on the performance itself, “unwrapping” its context and larger meanings. It will be moderated by Dr. Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin and feature scholars Dr. Thomas DeFrantz (Friday only), Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko and others.

As in past productions of No Boundaries, in-between Mason’s solo dances will be video footage of each the choreographers giving audiences a personal view of them and their approach to their art.

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Gesel Mason

On the program will be a reprise of Mason’s 1999 solo “How to Watch a Modern Dance Concert or What in the Hell Are They Doing on Stage” (Saturday and Sunday only) set to music by Bach, Cleo Parker Robinson Dance company dancer Jarrett Rashad performing Cleo Parker Robinson’s 1975 work “EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE” set to music by Quincy Jones (Friday only), and fellow CPRD dancers Chloe-Grant Abel and Edgar L. Page in and “Somewhere,” an excerpt from Gary Abbott’s SWEET REE (1991), an homage to singer Aretha Franklin set to her music (Friday only).

Mason will then perform the world premiere of “Where You Come From,” created for her by Dianne McIntyre and set to music by Olu Dara, and will reprise David Roussève’s “Jumping the Broom” (2005), a timely solo that talks about who has the right to marry.

The hourlong performance component closes with a work-in-progress showing of Rennie Harris’ Beautiful Human Lies, a suite of dances Harris says is “inspired by personal abuse I experienced and witnessed as a child.” It will be danced by Rennie Harris Grass Roots Project dancers DeAndré Carrol, Millie Heckler, Ron Jules, Kevin O’Keefe, Emily Pietruszka, Larry Southall and Katie Swenson.

The next step says Mason is to turn a future version of No Boundaries into a PBS special and to also create a website and DVD surrounding the project.

“All these dances are residing in my body as a live archive and I want to begin to document, share and expand what this archive can be,” says Mason.

[UN]W.R.A.P.: No Boundaries will be presented 7:30 p.m., Friday, September 18 and Saturday, September 19 and 2 p.m., Sunday, September 20. University of Colorado Boulder’s Charlotte York Irey Theatre. $9.00 – $14.00. (303) 492-8008 or https://tickets.cupresents.org – Watch select performances live at: http://livestream.com/accounts/2713216

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