March 28th, 2019
On Thursday, March 28th 2019, the Baltimore arts collective, Afro House presented Act 1 of “Cease & Desist Ballet” at the WTMD radio studio in Towson. Described as an Afrofuturistic opera-ballet, “Cease & Desist Ballet,” had a little bit of everything and whole lot of power.
The event was sold out and despite the limited room on stage, the Afro House members did an excellent job conveying the scenes through song and dance. Nine performers entered by walking through the audience wearing metallic helmets that resembled those worn by astronauts. As they took their places on stage, I was impressed by the way the singers were positioned in a way to allow themselves to take the foreground or recede to the background despite the lack of an actual backstage or side stage. The music, composed by Scott Patterson, was performed using two keyboards, an electric bass, vocal percussion, and voices. While the main characters all had opportunities to sing during choruses, arias, and recitatives, there was one character who danced throughout the duration of the performance. The dancer moved with grace and ease across a relatively small stage and it left me wondering how elegant the movement could be on a full stage. I was also generally impressed by Patterson’s ability to sing and simultaneously play two keyboards situated on either side of his body. There is an added coordination challenge demanded by this setup, but clearly Patterson has experience in this position as he dispatched the virtuosic solos with ease and never even glanced down at his hands.
The story centered around two sisters who have to guide their nation through turbulent times brought upon by their father who nearly killed everyone through the creation of a second sun. Themes of African spirituality, mathematics, physics, time, and space were all explored through music and movement. At times I was left wondering about the meaning behind particular images. There was much emphasis given to the word “red” when describing celestial bodies, and the significance of a dried up river could not be understated as the ensemble continuously reminded us that, “there used to be a river here.” But for all the vivd imagery, an audience member with no prior knowledge of the plot would have found it difficult to follow the story. I don’t believe the scenes demanded linear resolution and I suspect some of the material was supposed to be ambiguous in relation to the story. Even if I had trouble following the plot at times, I was always captivated by the drama that seemed to encompass the entire production, especially during arias and duets.
While the story was intriguing, many musical and theatrical techniques were deftly used to create a sense of cohesion between scenes. The astronaut helmets were worn or removed at times to delineate solos from choral accompaniment or featured activities from surrounding participants. Unison singing shifted from monophony to dense harmony at poignant moments. Musical interludes were at times funky and highly rhythmic, and other times more atmospheric and subdued. These compositional decisions kept the audience engaged during the entire fifty-minute act. Patterson even worked in the counting of a section of music in 7/8-time by getting the whole ensemble to sing in time, “one two, one two, one two three.” At another point in the piece, Patterson got the whole audience clapping in a more pedestrian 4/4 time. Moments like these highlighted the fact that even with a provocative, futuristic story, the presentation never felt too far removed from a musical performance that people could join through song and dance.
At the conclusion of the show, Afro House received a standing ovation and Patterson led the ensemble with a brief encore of instrumental music to play us out. Ultimately this was a fascinating and engaging performance made effective by good transitions and a tight ensemble. I was also impressed with how much music, drama, dancing, and story-telling were displayed with limited forces. I look forward to future productions by Afro House as it seems there is no limit to the creative possibilities that this collective of artists could present through music, dance, and theater.
Jeremy Lyons is a guitarist, composer, and writer living in Baltimore City. He is an artistic director of the contemporary music ensemble, Pique Collective, a performing member of the music cooperative, Mind on Fire, and he collaborates with artists of all kinds working in a variety of mediums. If you want to get in touch with him or suggest an event for him to experience, use his contact page.