“Get on the Good Foot”: A Tribute to James Brown and Pure Dance Pastiche at the Ahmanson

Part documentary, part revue, part nostalgic look back at James Brown and his performances for the Apollo Theater, Get on the Good Foot serves up a noisy, colorful tribute to Brown’s era and music. The show, subtitled A Celebration in Dance, is big on entertainment but rarely digs below the surface as it vamps its way through Brown’s music. Ten choreographers under the artistic direction of Otis Sallid dish up a briskly paced tour through twelve scenes that embrace stage, tap, African, disco, and street dance vernaculars.

Some of the segments stick with a single song, while others are assembled as medleys, reflecting the way Brown used to move through his material in his live stage shows. Costumed with stylish detail by Danté Anthony Baylor, the production is fronted by three soloists and the powerful company dancers at PHILADANCO. The project is part of the Apollo Theater’s Legacy Series which is developing stage shows based on its legendary performers.

Get on the Good Foot sells the music hard but wanders inconsistently in applying a focus when it comes to dance. The ten contributing choreographers including Mr. Sallid, and others (Ronald K. Brown (Evidence) and, Derrick K. Grant Bring in da Noise) have put up an appealing dance collage but it lacks a through line that unifies the music and the dancing. We get some of that connective tissue through the photographic projections of Brown on stage and his voice overs (“I’m a sound scientist.”) which introduce many of the dance numbers, but these choreographers are essentially cut loose here and left to their own devices.

In Ron Brown’s medley forThink About It, I got the Feeling, and Get on the Good Foot, the choreographer made trade mark use of his blended African and American movement. Ecstacy, choreographed and danced by Aakash Odera, seemed a misplaced, at times labored effort at connecting Brown’s Make it Funky with Sufi and generic Indian dance. Camille A. Brown found the humor in her posing quintet for 1973 (I Feel Good).  Ephrat Asherie in her B-girl version of It’s a Man’s World played against type with her street dance take on the song. The imposing Derick Grant tapped his way through Superbad with genuine flair and good vibes, but with clunky amplification that was hobbling.

I mentioned earlier the documentary quality of the production. In Souleymane Badolo’s section BENON (Please, Please, Please, I Feel Good, and Sex Machine) Mr. Badolo recreated actual movement from one of Brown’s mid-seventies performance of Sex Machine. Brown kneels, cradles the mic stand, as another performer drapes a coat over Brown like a cape. In the original, Brown wore a sleeveless green jumpsuit. It was a blast of actual James Brown in the midst of a show that wasn’t always a faithful servant of the music. 

(The reviewed performance took place at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, February 14, 2014.  Joan Meyers Brown is the Artistic Director of The Philadelpia Dance Company. The musical direction and sound engineering were by Ronobir Lahiri and Kevin Toney.)  

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