Dance

Choreographer, Dancer Randolph T. Ward Examines Social Fractures In ‘Them and Us’

Written By Sean Erwin
July 8, 2024 at 11:31 AM

Dancer Natanael Leal performs in “The Big Dig” by choreographer Randolph Ward, one of the pieces in “Them and Us,” on Friday, July 12 at Sandrell Rivers Theater, Miami. (Photo courtesy of Randolph Ward)

“Gender bending,” “politically charged,” “provocative” are a few of the descriptors Miami peers and critics have applied to Randolph T. Ward, since the choreographer, dancer and artistic director returned to his hometown and founded his company, RTW Dance, in 2019.

Ward’s latest program, “Them and Us,” with a performance at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, July 12, at the Sandrell Rivers Theater in Miami, extends his examination of the ways racism and gender stereotypes trap the human body and divide people from one another.

The program includes two world premieres, “The Big Dig” and “Dystopia,” as well as a remake of an audience favorite, “Code Switch.”

“Code Switch” first premiered at the Broward Center of the Performing Arts as part of the “Men Who Dance” festival in November 2022.

Since that premiere, Ward has added new music and new sections to the nine-minute, three-movement social dance commentary on the idea of code-switching (when individuals who identify as BIPOC shift body language and style of verbal communication to fit into white-dominated spaces).

Dancer Destiny Diaz performs the role of “The Zealot” in “Dystopia” by choreographer Randolph Ward. (Photo courtesy of Randolph Ward)

Ward based the original work on his own reactions to the 2022 PBS documentary, “Making Black America.”  Central to “Code Switch” is the 1968 speech by African American writer, James Baldwin, to the question, “what does a Negro want?”  Cited in the documentary, Ward included it in his own piece in its entirety.

Though Ward himself notably performed the lead role in the 2022 premiere, the revamped version features dancers Nala Cook, Destiny Diaz and Natanael Leal.

“The movement vocabulary has been improved,” says Ward.  “The work now has a bigger and more nuanced African-American vocabulary to it.”  The revised piece even includes a Black majorette dance section inspired by half-time performances by bands at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  “These are all ideas I wanted in the original work but had no time to develop,” adds Ward.

Miami audiences got a glimpse of an excerpt from the two-movement solo work, “The Big Dig,” in May 2024 when Ward premiered it as part of the “Miami Dances” program presented by Miami Dance Hub at the Sandrell Rivers Theater.

In the completed piece included in “Them and Us,” Ward takes a deep dive into the notion of anxiety, which the choreographer described as emanating from a deeply personal experience of the feeling.

 “I believe that my anxiety is created by circumstance: lack of money, emotional stress, societal pressure to conform, professional stress…etc.,” explains Ward, “and something that is created can also be destroyed.”

Dancer Natanael Leal performs in “The Big Dig” by choreographer Randolph Ward. (Photo courtesy of Randolph Ward)

He cast Leal, a nonbinary Brazilian artist, in the solo role, because he sees in the dancer a shared work ethic. “(Leal’s work ethic) is an unapologetic pursuit in investigating and discovering the work. What does the work need? What do I need to do to get there? I needed an artist that was not going to allow fear to govern the artistic journey. ‘The Big Dig’ needed real authenticity,” says Ward.

Though Leal frequently performs in Ward’s works, “The Big Dig” was especially challenging for the dancer because of their own personal connection to the subject matter.

“Anxiety has always been a friend of mine and I am very familiar with this emotion,” says Leal.  “It has been a necessary nightmare that I have had to face . . . Being this vulnerable has taught me that it is okay to connect with the most painful parts of oneself,” says Leal.

“Them and Us” rounds off with a world premiere of “Dystopia,” where the choreographer gives a nod to how the recent pandemic revealed the limits of human control.  “Dystopia” combines dance with theatrical elements and a new electronic music composition that the choreographer created expressly for the new work.

For “Dystopia,” Ward drew on the talents of five dancers including Leal, Diaz, Stephanie Sanchez, Luzcarina Nunez, and Tayanna Love.  Ward included the talents of local jazz vocalist, Ja’Nia Harden.

“(In ‘Dystopia’) I am getting to showcase different sides of myself musically,” says  Harden, “jazz singing, gospel singing, musical theater style singing, and I play the clarinet.”

Costumed in a white doctor’s lab coat studded with black rhinestones, Harden reprises the role of Lady X in the new work.

“Lady X is inspired by all sectors of American life that are obsessed with control,” explains Ward. “Think North Korea, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Nazi Germany, Putin, or a mad scientist.”

Building on the idea of a top-down society, the choreographer modeled the group dance sequences in “Dystopia” on the behavior of ants: “(Ants) social societies closely mirror ours. Each ant has a specific purpose that is directly in service of the queen and the colony. They have a social hierarchy system as well. I wanted to use the idea of ants all in a line that follow the orders of the matriarch.”

Dancer Natanael Leal performs in “Dystopia” by choreographer Randolph Ward. (Photo courtesy of Randolph Ward)

Diaz, a Florida International University theater graduate, performs the role of “The Zealot,” which she found especially challenging because she says she couldn’t personally relate to the character.

“I have had to do a lot of research for the role and within my research I have discovered behaviors and mannerisms of a specific societal group/race that I wasn’t necessarily paying attention to,” says Diaz. “It has made me explore how I would behave or act if I were confronted by this societal community.”

Ward included the character of “The Zealot” to explore the sociological effects of racism on the racists themselves. When asked how the role functions in the piece, Ward quotes Baldwin:  “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain,” says the choreographer.

WHAT: RTW Dance presents “Them and Us”

WHERE: The Sandrell Rivers Theater, 6103 NW 7th Ave., Miami

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 12. The performance will be followed by a question and session with choreographer and cast. 

COST: Presale ends July 8, $35 general admission, $45 at the door

INFORMATION: (305) 284-8800 or tickets.ftfshows.com

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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