Grooves shift continuously in the choreography of Dimensions Dance Theater, which traces a circuitous thread along the African diaspora. The idea, said Dimensions cofounder Deborah Vaughan, is to take seemingly disparate idioms — African and Caribbean folkloric dance, proscenium-based balletic dance, and contemporary Western steps like the Charleston and the Jerk — and blend them together. Oakland native Vaughan began dancing at age thirteen by enrolling in classes at her neighborhood park and recreation center. She helped launch Dimensions in 1973, after studying modern dance at Mills College and under the tutelage of Ruth Beckford, Syvilla Fort, and various members of Katherine Dunham Dance Company in New York. As a result, her choreography is steeped in the Dunham tradition, culling influences from jazz, blues, and many indigenous cultures, and creating from them fluid, meticulously detailed movements.
For Vaughan, each dance tells a story with an expansive sense of time and place. In 2004 she premiered the piece Streams of Legacy, which integrated Cuban and Zimbabwean elements with a sound palette by freewheeling jazz pianist Omar Sosa. Two years later, Dimensions collaborated with Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir for Sweet Savory Sunday, a piece that used gospel music, spirituals, and blues to dramatize the lives of slaves. Last year’s Cross Currents brought Asian American Jazz Orchestra conductor Anthony Brown into the fold. It used Brown’s mother, who’s from Japan, as its moral compass, telling the story of how she returned home as the bride of a GI and was ostracized by her community, said Vaughan. In a larger context, it traced the history of various ethnic groups aligning in the Bay Area to create a unified bloc.
For its 35th anniversary celebration, Dimensions will perform a retrospective program at Oakland Inter-Stake Center (4780 Lincoln Ave.), featuring music by the Khalil Shaheed Sextet and a small drum corps. Save for a few prerecorded snippets and a new arrangement of Benard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change” by pianist Jacqueline Hairston, the score comprises original material that Shaheed specifically wrote for Vaughan’s choreography. For him, the collaboration was an exercise in self-discipline, since Dimensions’ dancers would come in with movements that were already formalized, often in odd meters that shifted from one bar to the next. “We do one tune where they dance and we play in three different time signatures, one behind another,” Shaheed said. “The first part is fifteen and then it’s five and then it’s eleven — that was interesting to write for.” Apparently, Vaughan’s acolytes move with an abstract pulse; since they start from a rhythmic rather than melodic perspective, their work has a kind of elasticity that you won’t always get from someone just sitting down at a piano and writing a tune. Such formal qualities require rigorous imagination on Shaheed’s part. Yet the results are captivating, and of a piece with Vaughan’s protean dimensions. 8 p.m. $15-$25. DimensionsDance.org