When you think about it, Pittsburgh hasn’t seen anything quite like Kendra Dennard, alias Vie Boheme. While establishing her dance reputation — long legs, fierce stage persona and all — she was creating a parallel universe as songstress and performer Vie Boheme.
But unlike J Lo, who famously made the jump from contemporary dancer to pop singer and actress, Kendra/Vie has chosen another path. She has meticulously researched the history of black female singers and put together a solo performance, Viva: BLACK, that both educates and entertains.
There was never any doubt that Kendra had that innate star quality, nor that she had the ability to gather other considerable Pittsburgh talents under one roof for her performances. From The Space Upstairs to the August Wilson Center, it turns out that she has gradually been developing this tribute to the women who have played a part in her own development.
At the Kaufmann Center in the Hill District’s Hill House, she was front and center, supported by a tight eight-piece band, a couple of terrific back-up singers (Anquenique Wingfield and Jacquea Mae Olday, who each smartly and deservedly took a turn in the spotlight), a terrific trio of back-up dancers (Abigail Atkins, Ira Cambric and Annalee Traylor) and a highly receptive audience.
The Kaufmann Center is an intimate and flexible space (with plenty of parking in back, on Centre Avenue or at Ebeneezer Baptist Church), although there was still some echo in the Center, blurring lyrics despite acoustical tile adjustments.
It began with a slide and video show listing the performers who provided the rich resource material, including Dinah Washington, Billie Holliday, Eryka Badu, Nina Simone and Michael Jackson.
Josephine Baker was a given — the resemblance to her was uncanny in the video footage. And in fact, Ms. Vie began with the divine Ms. Baker and a pair of songs associated with her, J’ai Deux Amour, which explained her love of Paris, and the more familiar C’est Si Bon. And Nina Simone as well, with Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.
I particularly liked the less familiar, like Hound Dog (Ruth Brown?) and They Say I’m Different, a nod to the great Betty Davis, who was once called “Sly Stone, Mick Jagger and The Jimi Hendrix Experience all rolled into one woman.” Little quotes like this and a perhaps a reference to the voluminous black wig that seemed to come from Betty’s great sense of funk-y fashion.
And therein lay the core of Viva: BLACK — an evening about women who had a sense of adventure and weren’t afraid to speak their mind, both in song and in life.
Like Betty, Vie is the whole package. Her movement has become mesmerizing, with arms that entice and legs that slice the stratosphere. The costumes by Suz Pisano in collaboration with Vie were first rate while Bob Steineck made the most of the lighting system.
I think the photos or footage could be inserted during the course of the evening to help the audience relate to these artists who have meant so much to Vie. She could do a little monologue about some of the others in the midst of it all, just to make it even more meaningful.
Then the third act, with some of her own instantly relatable songs, which sometimes meshed with Billy “Free” Pilgrim’s seductive rap (he had a great transition from a modern day Cab Calloway, bullhorn and all, in St. James Infirmary) would pop to an even greater extent.
Never anything less than glamorous, never anything less than charismatic, Vie Boheme, is on a path to destiny. What is it? That remains to be seen, but once you have seen her, you will follow her closely.