James Brown was enough of a dancer that a tribute to him in dance becomes a tricky business. To do like James Brown – the jittery steps slipping and sliding beneath the solidest of trunks, even if it does harbour those wracking screams – is inevitably to pale beside his memory. To dance to him is what we all do anyway (though not exactly like dazzling Philadanco dancers decked out in funky sartorial splendour). The best of several solutions that nine choreographers devised for the 90-minute medley James Brown: Get on the Good Foot – A Celebration in Dance (until Saturday) was to proceed by counterpoint and contrast, a method the man himself favoured.
Tap dancing to funk? Redundant, I would have thought. But at the Apollo – the singer’s famous Harlem haunt – Derick K. Grant laid his warm and manic beats in to “Superbad, Superslick” so they worked like any other of the rhythmic effects – the sighing and moaning, the revving up and stuttering down – that motor the tunes along.
B-girl Ephrat Asherie turned “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (“But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl”) on its head by spinning on her back. The tender ballad imagines a woman is where a man comes to rest, but Asherie never stopped gyring. She was not a sanctuary but the storm.
The sheer incongruity of neo-kathak practitioner Aakash Odedra whirling like a dervish, with arms rising like flames, to “Get on the Good Foot” drove the Apollo crowd wild. Given that kathak is rhythm-obsessed, though, Odedra might have played off Brown’s beat for more than an entrancing minute. At least Ronald K. Brown revelled in such layering. He gave a West African open-hipped ease to the singer’s shimmying steps in a lightly choreographed chaos that Mr Dynamite would have appreciated. Likewise, Souleymane Badolo imagined Burkinabés circa the 1970s giddily espousing Black (and flower-print) Power. The splendid Philadanco crew did the mash potato with a frenzied grace. To the swaying of “Please, Please, Please” they bowed their Afro-wigged heads like top-heavy flowers.
Good Foot featured a lot of partying in those wigs, in fact. But Badolo, together with Ronald K. Brown, stood out for seeing in the music something more precious and eccentric than a generic sexy good time.