Essence Dances to Music of John and Alice Coltrane

Elizabeth Dobbins

“Escape from New Babylon to the Sweet Music of John and Alice Coltrane,” presented by Essence dance troupe, is the second in a trilogy of artist showcases that began with 2010’s celebration of musician Eric Dolphy. Showing in Warner Main on March 9 and 10 at 8 p.m., the event will be a mix of music, dance and spoken-word performances.

The show’s artistic director, the African American Studies Department’s artist-in-residence Adenike Sharpley, explained that the dance portion of the show will feature black expressionism, a form of dance improvisation heavily influenced by West African styles ,originally introduced to Sharpley by her mentor, Margaret Christian, OC ’74.

Sharpley said this improvisational method of dancing can be challenging for performers, as “the pulse disappears, but it’s implied, and the dancers have to still be on it whether you can hear it or not.”

The ideals of Sharpley’s other group, Dance Diaspora, with its goal to maintain the legacy of African dance, are also important to this weekend’s performance and, as Sharpley said, to “learn and record through your body the history of dances.”

College junior Ellery Kirkconnell, one of the dancers in the show and a member of Diaspora, wanted to continue the legacy by participating in Essence. Kirkconnell will be performing along with fellow College juniors Jessie Burnside Clapp and Vanessa Champagne, as well as senior Jennifer Osagie and Anthony Osei, OC ’08.

Kirkconnell feels that the mix of current students, alumni and even community members participating in the event “speaks to the legacy of Diaspora and Essence.”

Ralph Jones, faculty-in-residence at Afrikan Heritage House and a saxophone and flute player is acting as the show’s music director. He will appear alongside Conservatory and College students and other musicians as they perform works by John and Alice Coltrane. John Coltrane, a musician who disliked the term “jazz” and may be better described as producing “autophysiopsychic” music, was active in the music scene starting in the 1950s until his death in 1967.

Jones is enthusiastic about the music of Coltrane. “When John Coltrane was on the earth, he was constantly evolving as an artist. You know, often, people will hear John Coltrane at a certain period and not understand what his music was, but they don’t go back chronologically and listen to how he evolved in a very short period of time.”

Jones does not simply want to play Coltrane’s music in the way it was originally composed, however. “My thought musically was to change and play the music we were going to do by John Coltrane in other ways. Some of the pieces we’re doing in Afro-Cuban beat. … We wanted to make the tribute important but also do some of that music in a totally different context than you usually hear it,” he said.

In combination with the dance and poetry portions, Jones feels that this performance offers a good opportunity for students to be exposed to the music of both Coltranes.

“The music and the lives of John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane are very important for all communities of art because of the impact that they made on the music community and on the spiritual community,” said Jones. “I feel that many young people have not really been exposed to the music of John Coltrane as well as Alice Coltrane, and I think when you give programs such as this they should be educationally uplifting as well as artistically, spiritually uplifting.”