Elbert Watson thrust his fist into the air Thursday afternoon at the Tucker Fine Arts Center at Norfolk Academy. A war song blared through the speakers as two dancers stood at his side, mimicking his pained facial expression and firm stance.
At the end of the number, the men carried Watson’s body across the studio, laying him on the ground before joining him to feign death.
The rehearsal prepared for a performance on Saturday at the Attucks Theatre, celebrating its 100th anniversary. Called “One More River to Cross,” the event will honor the theater’s namesake, Crispus Attucks, and the late soul singer Sam Cooke. It’s also part of the Norfolk Public Library’s African American History Month program.
Watson said showtime is at 4 p.m. and everyone’s welcome to attend.
The dance master and Norfolk native has taught students at Norfolk Academy since 1984. He runs the Elbert Watson Dance Company, teaches adult dance classes during the week and is on the Attucks Theatre’s centennial committee.
This year’s performance, he said, will be a learning experience for the audience.
“The Attucks piece is very heavy,” he said. “(Crispus Attucks) was the first person to die in the Boston Massacre and because of him, the American Revolution happened. Most folks don’t know who he is.”
Watson set out to research Attucks last summer. That’s when he came across a book by Mitch Kachun, a history professor at Western Michigan University. Kachun’s “elaborate” research about Attucks helped him create the dance, Watson said.
Watson also researched the theater and saw that Sam Cooke once graced its stage. This weekend, he’ll honor Cooke by dancing to “Twistin’ The Night Away” and some of the singer’s other hits.
He said the theater is an important piece of history.
“That was the only place blacks could go, like the Apollo,” he said. “When all these headliners like Ruth Brown and Sam Cooke and Ellington came to Norfolk, they could only perform at that theater. It has a history of great singers.”
Watson’s performances, he said, tackle topics that aren’t discussed often, like Navajo code talkers who helped the U.S. during World War II and the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on relationships. They’re learning experiences for the dancers who bring these stories to life.
Gregory Barton teaches art history and studio art at Norfolk Academy. He’ll be in the Crispus Attucks performance on Saturday.
“Elbert’s provided us with readings and YouTube videos and DVDs and all this great stuff that has come into play,” he said. “It’s one thing to come in here and go through the motions as an artist, but to have that historical background is so important.”
It’s also pretty emotional trying to tell a story through movement, he said.
“Think back to that time in your life when this happened,” Barton remembers Watson saying. “Imagine, that must’ve been how Crispus Attucks was feeling.”
Watson has studied classical ballet in New York and Germany. He said one philosophy has stuck with him all these years: The audience should understand the story unfolding before them.
“If they’re guessing what’s happening, you’re not doing your job,” he said.
At the Attucks, there won’t be any guessing.
“You will get the story because I’ve done the research,” he said. “The movement and acting tells it. You will experience it.”
Publication: The Virginian-Pilot / February 22, 2019
Photo Credit: Pexels