Dayton Contemporary Dance Company
Through Saturday, June 16
Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham

We are watching. We have been preparing. And we are ready for whatever you can throw at us.

That’s the message that Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, which is devoted to the work and performance of artists of color, delivered with an inspiring program to open the 2018 American Dance Festival. Muscular, political, and restless, the evening (which repeats tonight and also has a children’s matinee tomorrow) combines old and new work and features the world premiere of Indestructible, choreographed by Abby Zbikowski.

The program opens with two legacy works that are both formally and politically timely: Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, which premiered in 1959 and was first danced by Dayton in 1987, and Asadata Dafora’s Awassa Astrige/Ostrich, which premiered in 1932 and became part of Dayton’s repertoire in 1997. McKayle’s work, which almost looks like it could have been choreographed this year, finds new energy in the Black Lives Matter era. Depicting a chain gang breaking rocks and dreaming of lovers and mothers—and, finally, mourning one of their own shot down in an escape attempt—“Rainbow” gives the mass incarceration of people of color a desperate humanity.

Indestructible responds to Rainbow by expressing the intensity of our racially polarized political moment. Rather than literally portraying protest or resistance, however, Zbikowski shows a generation coming together through rigorous preparation. Constructed entirely of hip-hop movement, it’s not so much a series of demonstrative or competitive breaks as it is training for a hostile world that requires spontaneity and flexibility just to survive.

Dancers shout words of encouragement from the wings and count off the movements as they’re doing them. Almost entirely lacking a soundtrack and lit mostly by caged bulbs high above, the work comes across as a military drill or CrossFit for the structurally oppressed. Although the movement is relentless and difficult, there’s the measured joy of accomplishment and meeting challenges. In one sequence, two opposing “teams” of three dance toward each other like a scrimmage. After a few clashes, they gather to “breathe it out” before continuing. This is about building reflexes, running contingencies.

The program ends with the 2017 Ray Mercer work This I Know for Sure…, which combines hip-hop movement and African dance gestures with balletic phrasing. Throughout six sections, the company shows off its tremendous ability as a dancer or two falls out of ensemble movement to move as an individual before smoothly rejoining into the group. It’s both precise and casual, and it sets up gasp moments of virtuosity as well as a showstopping finale.

But Indestructible is the highlight, a work that sends you out of the auditorium vibrating with the power of readiness and organization. In his 1964 “By any means necessary” speech, Malcolm X said, “Tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today.” Dayton has taken that to heart in this stunning, useful work.