Coltrane Show Offers “Escape” into Music, Dance

Julia Hubay, Staff Writer

A disembodied voice rang out in the darkened cavern of Warner Main Space: “May there be peace and love and perfection throughout all creation, oh God.” Slowly, musicians joined in with the repeated mantra, and the homage to John Coltrane swung into motion.

Essence presented “Escape from New Babylon to the Sweet Music of John and Alice Coltrane” on March 9 and 10 with sponsorship from the African American Studies and Theater and Dance departments. Adenike Sharpley, artistic director for Dance Diaspora, performed beautifully expressive pieces in addition to directing the show. In the program notes she commented: “I didn’t want to give lip service to [Coltrane], rather I actually wanted to honor him by doing a performance he would actually be proud of.”

Ralph Jones, faculty-in-residence at Afrikan Heritage House, also contributed his artistic vision to the production by directing the music and playing saxophone. He put together a talented and soulful band, the Cosmic All Stars, featuring Conservatory junior Zane Kieran Rodulfo; College juniors Joshua Moton, Ellington Scott and Nicolette Buckle; Conservatory sophomores Shea Pierre and Michelle Ellison; and College sophomore Malachi Thomas, along with Al Rollins on tenor saxophone. Rollins is a local musician who studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and is well known in jazz circles in Cleveland and New York.

As the band opened the show with “Journey in Satchidananda,” the dancers of Essence marched onstage, bent over in a deep bow. Moving only their wrists and hands, the dancers slowly raised their heads and began to make concentrated movements visually reminiscent of yoga practice. This first dance, deliberate and spiritual, foreshadowed the control and artistry that the dancers of Essence — College juniors Vanessa Champagne, Ellery Bob Kirkconnell, Jessie Burnside Clapp and Jennifer Osagie, along with Anthony Osei, OC ’09, and Kristal Boyd, OC ’10 — would display for the rest of the evening.

Many talents were demonstrated throughout the show, all taking place in front of a loop of projected pictures of John and Alice Coltrane so that their influence informed every movement of the performance. Some of the show’s major highlights were the rhythm tap dances performed by hoofer Rashida Bumbray, OC ’00. She unassumingly clicked her way to the middle of the stage, and then she began to dance, using her whole body as her instrument as she contributed to the music like any other percussionist, following the flow of the song and taking powerfully expressive solos. Bumbray’s shadow, thrown on the wall by the projector, provided a beautiful yet faceless visual aspect to her musical performance.

After Bumbray’s first dance, the audience exploded in raucous applause, and the mood became much more celebratory. Many of the dances performed by Essence were joyful and fun; during one slow, particularly sexy song, the dancers seduced each other and the audience with their hypnotic hips. Sharpley also performed some seductive and mesmerizing dances, draped in beautiful folds of colorful cloth and wearing sparkling beads around her neck.

The climax of the show came when the six dancers of Essence returned to the stage dressed in church clothes, weeping and wailing. The display on the screen changed from album covers and the Coltranes’ smiling visages to painful images depicting the segregation and violence that occurred during the struggle for civil rights. The dancers moved in unison, praying with their foreheads pressed to the ground and then springing up into the air, embodying the freedom so long struggled for.

A voice repeated “Six children dead,” the saxophones wailed and one dancer collapsed in a spasm of grief. Not a single member of the audience missed the emotional impact of the song, hardly daring to breathe.

In addition to the musical and dance aspects of the show, the spoken word also played a prominent role. Poets, including local artist Meeko Isreal, Professor of Studio Art and African American Studies Johnny Coleman, and Essence dancer Champagne performed their Coltrane-inspired work, speaking in powerful voices that resonated around the room. As the performance wound to a close, the dancers moved offstage, and a stirring rendition of “A Love Supreme” capped off the beautiful celebration of the great musical talents of John and Alice Coltrane. The musicians repeated the words as each instrument dropped out, until only the sound of their voices remained, echoing into the darkness: “A love supreme.”