Anderson dance: a moving experience

Illness curtails her concerts, but she and her troupe of 32 years step out in a BMA documentary


Eva Anderson watches her own image appear on the television monitor in the kitchen of her Columbia home - the powerful energy of the dance caught in her figure straining under a taut cloth, like a swan snared in a net.

"I like cloth," she says. "I like Spandex especially because it can do things. It can dance almost by itself, if you manipulate it right."

Anderson is previewing the documentary Chronicles of a Dancer: How We Became Artists, a video retrospective of the 32 seasons of the Eva Anderson Dancers, which will premiere today at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Anderson, who has always been a creative, inventive choreographer, has been a wizard at keeping a professional dance company afloat for three decades in Maryland.

"We were just a group of artists out there raising the money to pay rent, rent theaters, do the costumes and pay the dancers," she says. "And that's what we did for 32 years."

But, for the first time in more than three decades, the dance company won't present a full season of about a half-dozen performances.

"I'm recovering from surgery," says Anderson, who won't elaborate further. "I've had a really rough year. I've had three major surgeries in this one year. I need to really get healthy. I can't do the yearly season because I don't have the strength to do it.

"We can always do a concert whenever we want to," she says. "That's our plan: not to try to do a yearly season like we have done. But to do concerts when we can."

The dance company began in 1974 as the Baltimore Dance Theater, a community arts program at Dunbar High School with Orville Johnson and Maria Broom.

Anderson joined in 1975 when she moved to Baltimore from New York City. She'd worked there with a dance group at Adelphi University where she earned her bachelor's degree. She'd studied dance under followers of such modern masters as Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham.

Three years later, she became artistic director of the Baltimore Dance Theater. And when she moved to Columbia, the troupe became Eva Anderson Dancers Ltd, a nonprofit corporation. The dance company settled down in residence at the Howard County Arts Council.

The dancers toured Germany, Austria and Italy in the 1980s with performances based on Bach and African-American themes. The Europeans liked the African-American pieces so much that Anderson expanded that part of her repertory.

Professional dance companies such as Anderson's are scarce in the Baltimore-Washington area.

"And then they're getting fewer and fewer because the money keeps cutting back. No, there are not a lot of them," says Anderson, a handsome woman of 72 with close-cropped hair, a clear gaze, lovely skin and a ready smile.

"Not many are out there like we are," she says. "Our purpose was to create and perpetuate American dance with special emphasis on African-American dance forms. It was our goal to have a place where dancers could train to be professionals and where professionals could perform."

Dancers from the troupe have gone on to world famous companies like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York and Dance Theater of Harlem.

"But the point was that people would stay here," she says, "and that's what most of them have done."

Dancers like Sharon Henderson, Yvette Shipley Perkins and Branch Morgan have been with her virtually from the beginning.

The first image in today's documentary is taken from one of Anderson's own solo dances. The troupe's logo is derived from her figure entangled in cloth.

"I did a gray thing for five people," she says. "They have to work inside this cloth. To Philip Glass music. They have to work off of each other because if you make a wrong move it messes up the whole thing. So they have to constantly cooperate. And that was the point of dance."

In the video, the first dance is Hambone - 10 extremely agile and flexible dancers provide their own music by clapping their hands and stomping their feet.

"That hambone rhythm," she says. "That's an original movement pattern created by slaves translating European music into African style. It's improvisational. This particular one is for head, hands, feet and the next one will be for the whole body. The dancers improvise in their turn."

Anderson commissioned music for the documentary from a half-dozen composers and choreography from a dozen people.

One of the selections, Deep Blues by Don Pullen - a great modern jazz pianist - comes on screen with a deep, soulful blues piano and her own narration: "The blues are not to make you sad and it's not about being sad. By the time you sing the blues, you don't have the blues."

"He wrote at least 10 compositions for me," she says. She met Pullen when she returned to school for a stint at Johnson Smith University, in Charlotte, N. C.

And watching the documentary, which was still a work in progress at midweek, she tossed off almost casually her definition of the pleasure of dance: "The joy of watching an athletic body move in creative ways."

CHRONICLES OF A DANCER: HOW WE BECAME ARTISTS / / A documentary video of the Eva Anderson Dancers, Ltd/Baltimore Dance Theatre, with artistic director Eva Anderson as host / / 4 p.m. today at the Baltimore Museum of Art. $10. / / 410-997-3899.

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