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In Step With New Orleans

Eleanor J Bader Jul 18

Illustration by Jesse Kuhn

Excuse My French
Silver-Brown Dance Company
Performed June 17–18, 2008

In January 2006, Eva Bordeaux Silverstein, founder and artistic director of the Brooklynbased Silver-Brown Dance Company, traveled to New Orleans for a cousin’s wedding. Although she had seen footage and heard stories about Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, she was nonetheless stunned by the destruction.

“There were trees in people’s living rooms and debris in front of homes. The town felt like it had been ghosted,” Silverstein recalls. “There was a sense of death everywhere. It was dismal.”

Wanting to do something to help, the dancer — whose New Orleans roots trace back to her grandfather’s immigration to the Crescent City in the 1880s — decided to raise funds and bring her five-person dance company to NOLA’s Warren Easton High School (which was closed for more than a year following Katrina) for a two-week residency, called From Brooklyn to Bourbon Street, in spring 2007.

The experience was so successful that Silver Brown Dance Company (SBD) returned several months later — this time for three weeks — and is planning a third residency this fall for up to 100 students.

Yet as pleased as SBD members have been to give concrete instruction to New Orleans’ youth, SBD Board Chair Sue Donoghue says that troupe members also felt the need to create “a testament to the heart and soul of their support for the renewal of the city.”

The result, Excuse My French, Everybody in America, is a 45- minute dance performed against an audio backdrop of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s 2005 plea for government aid in the immediate aftermath of the storms.

“I’ve talked to everybody under the sun. I’ve done it all,” Nagin said. “I keep hearing that help is coming. My reaction is, where is it? I don’t see them. I told the President that we had an incredible crisis here. … Excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed.”

The performance, which had its U.S. premier at SBD’s 10th anniversary celebration in June, incorporates music by New Orleans musicians — classical, gospel, jazz, R&B and zydeco — and features movements suggesting both collective activity and profound isolation. Silverstein spent two years choreographing Excuse My French and hopes that audiences will feel “some of the joys and sorrows inherent in New Orleans’ culture. I hope they take away the idea that the story is not over and will walk out of the theater feeling our pain and our deep love for this city.”

If the premier was any indication, that goal will be met, and then some. Indeed, Excuse My French has it all: a powerful message, stunning dance, wonderful music and a lot of heart.

SBD intends to perform Excuse My French all over the world, from the Beijing Summer Olympics to the Dominican Republic and to Israel. Indeed, in the wake of recent typhoons, flooding and other ecological crises, Nagin’s words seem especially poignant: “This is ridiculous. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don’t tell us to wait. People are dying. They don’t have homes. They don’t have jobs.”

Despite rage over the pace of re-construction, Silverstein calls Excuse My French a valentine to New Orleans and says that the city’s “mix of Southern etiquette and down-home sass” continues to compel her choreography, whether the message is an attempt to promote peaceful co-existence or a celebration of freedom. “I try to create work that sends dancers flying,” she says, “as if there are no boundaries or barriers.” Small wonder that students at Warren Easton High School, as well as loyal SBD fans, find the company’s energetic spirit inspiring.

For more information about the Silver-Brown Dance Company, see brooklyntobourbon.com or silverbrowndance.org. You can also email silverbrowndance@aol.com.