The bubbling of an elderly Southern black woman fills the speakers at Dance Place: “Watch out, chile! Love is like a bittersweet chocolate: It tastes real sweet as it melts on your tongue ’til you bites into it, and all you gets is the dusty taste of bitter.”

It is Aunt Ruby, one of many voices—along with old man Grady, lost-his-dog Licky Licky, and crack addict Tin Man—that choreographer David Roussève easily slips into, he says, “to talk about love in an intimate, nonsexual, yet abstract way.”

Can he get a witness? The 38-year-old Roussève, founder of the New York-based dance company Reality, hasn’t had to search hard for testimonies from the afflicted for his latest dance opus, Love Songs. When word got out that Roussève wanted to bring the piece to D.C., the Washington Performing Arts Society jumped on it; in no time, he had found about two dozen local performers to join the local cast.

Local dancer Michael Sainte-Andress, who plays an opera diva in Love Songs, says that he has followed Roussève’s work for several years, but chickened out of a previous audition with the choreographer at the last minute. In braving this one, he says, he found asylum from the “cold, hateful, mean-spirited” auditions of his past. “Here you felt like you were part of something,” he rejoices—part of the humanity that spills from Roussève’s work.

Diane Yates-Biggs, another local cast member, was happy not to have found anybody putting glass in her dance shoes. She finds the collaboration “loving” and is impressed by Roussève’s focus on the “purity of the piece.”

Roussève’s story pivots on two 18th-century enslaved Africans, John and Sarah, living in the South, and their quest to find ways to love each other despite the larger-than-life puppet dogs chasing them—symbols of the brutality of their world. Roussève juxtaposes “down-home country” text with the libretto of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, hiphop with ballet, the streetwise character Shaniquah with Frederick Douglass.

As a mother, Yates-Biggs says, she understands the instincts of a mother in Roussève’s piece who suffocates her baby to save her from hardship. The mother was born with a veil over her face and is therefore, Yates notes, a symbol in the African-American community for “a person who can see things that others can’t.”

—Ayesha Morris

Love Songs premieres tonight and continues Saturday, Oct. 17, at 8 p.m. at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.

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