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Happy Feet

Robert Henry Johnson likes to play, both with his dances and with his audiences

Sitting in a small office in the University of Houston's Melcher Gymnasium, Robert Henry Johnson looks like a slightly naughty child. He's positioned himself on the floor next to a metal desk, and as a conversation gets under way he begins pulling at the sweatpants he's wearing, stretching them down over his bare feet until they begin to resemble a toddler's booties-included pajama bottoms. His head and hands are in constant motion, and every now and again he'll glance up slyly to see if what he's said has registered properly with his guest. Johnson is approaching 30 years of age, but at the moment he seems more like he's still a good distance away from approaching puberty.

It's easy to see why, when he showed up at the Bavarian State Opera Ballet in Munich almost a decade ago, the artistic director there thought some sort of joke had been played on him. "It wasn't just that I was black, and there weren't many black people there," Johnson says. "It's that I was barely 20, and I looked more like I was 16. He was like, who are you?"

Who he was at that time was the protege of William Forsythe, the famed director of the Frankfurt Ballet, who'd discovered Johnson by chance one day in a rehearsal studio in San Francisco, setting a dance piece on the woman who'd later become Forsythe's wife. Forsythe had asked Johnson whose work the piece was, Johnson replied it was his, and before much longer he found himself in Germany, and the darling of Munich's dance fans.

In the years since, Johnson -- whose company will perform this weekend at the University of Houston under the auspices of DiverseWorks, the National Performance Network and the UH Dance Division -- has also become the darling of dance fans in San Francisco, his hometown, where he returned after only a few months abroad because, as he says, "I realized I wasn't an expatriate. I also realized I wasn't an African, though obviously I come from African stock. What I found out was that I'm an American, and I had to come back to America to do what I wanted to do." What that was, he says now, was to discover a new style of movement, to "funk up" dance a little, and, at the same time, give people such as himself a place to go.

"I began my own company in 1993 out of a sense of isolation," Johnson says. "As a black male dancer, I really had no place to go. I was just heavily inundated by the sense that there was no apprenticeship, nobody to really turn to who knew what I was about. So I decided to make the apprenticeship myself."

The result, according to West Coast dance critics, has been nothing short of spectacular. One writer, echoing Jon Landau's famous line about Bruce Springsteen, claimed, "I have seen the future, and it is Robert Henry Johnson." Others have been only slightly more restrained, claiming Johnson is the heir apparent to the late Alvin Ailey, perhaps the most respected black choreographer of the 20th century.

Johnson gives another sly, upward glance when the Alvin Ailey comparison is mentioned. He's happy to have his name uttered in the same sentence with Ailey's, he admits, but the truth of the matter is that his approach to dance has very little to do with the semi-classical approach taken by Ailey. "There just aren't that many black choreographers out there," Johnson notes. "So when people are looking for a comparison, they naturally turn to Ailey. And he is an influence; nobody who's making dances today can say they weren't influenced by Alvin Ailey in one way or another. But too many of the [dance companies] that admire Ailey are becoming museum pieces, they're being stuffy, and I don't want that at all."

Indeed, whatever words might be used to describe Johnson's choreography, "stuffy" isn't among them. Exuberant is more like it; even in their quieter passages, his dances seem to bounce with barely contained life. There's nothing removed and austere about Johnson's work. It explodes with a physicality that's reflective of his own bravura style of movement. It can also explode, surprisingly, with humor, something that is too rarely seen on the dance stage. It's not unusual for the audience to burst into laughter at a Robert Henry Johnson Dance Company performance.

"I don't mind that at all," Johnson says. "I know they're laughing with me, not at me. And besides, what's wrong with having a little fun? You know, someone's got to run through the tulips and pick flowers and swing on the swings, 'cause everyone else is going on stage naked, and beating each other up, screaming and crying because they hate their fathers, their mothers, their boyfriends, their girlfriends. There's a lot of dark work out there, and I understand that, and I enjoy a lot of that. But I have chosen to be a particular kind of light, and it's one I think is needed."

Of the pieces Johnson plans to present in Houston, one may be darker than is usual for him. It's a new work titled Ark of the Gullah, Parts 1 and 2 and focuses on the lives of the Gullah islanders, who are descendants of slaves who escaped from captivity in South Carolina and set up independent enclaves on the sea islands that hug the coast of that state. Two other pieces, though, are ones that have defined Johnson's style: Hot House Flowers and Road to the Yellow Carnival. Flowers, says Johnson, had its origin in a scene from the movie Sunset Boulevard in which a man and a woman are talking on the phone. The conversation suggested a few steps to him, and from that came a "boy-meets-girl piece over the phone. I was just having some fun." Though Carnival is more serious, it's a seriousness that creeps up on you. For most of the performance, what's noticeable is simply the apparently playful interaction of two male and four female dancers.

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