Penny's a single mother in the black community, yearning for her long-absent man Odie while being hit on by fancy losers. If that sounds like recontextualized Homer, it's just the start of the interplay between mythic past and mundane present that makes the locally based Jazzantiqua company's new "Odysseus Suite" so appealing.
Introduced at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Saturday, the 90-minute dance drama weds the resourceful choreography of Pat Taylor and others to a haunting, nostalgia-tinged jazz score by Mark Shelby, played live by his quintet.
Throughout, a brooding undercurrent in Shelby's music reinforces the sense of displacement at the heart of the story and of the African American experience. As a result, a project that so easily could have been a mere novelty act a la "The Hot Mikado" achieves genuine stature: the richness of one epic odyssey superimposed on another.
Homeric grandeur turns up in the spoken and sung narration assigned the imposing Ava DuPree, while a guest appearance by Le Ballet de Kouman Kele West African Dance Company adds ancestral splendor to the "Land of the Dead" sequence. Mostly, however, we're watching very fallible and often helpless family members try to hang on a little longer or find some way to make it home.
Taylor and Daanee Touchstone dance the roles of Penny and her daughter Telisa with strong technique and a disarming naturalness artfully scaled to the intimacy of their scenes. The matched intensity of guests Siri Sat Nam and Winifred R. Harris makes the encounter between Odie and his dead mother into the emotional summit of the piece, and Jazzantiqua as a whole looks skillful and committed.
But there's room for improvement. Right now, we understand Penny but Odie seems vague and passive as a character until he asserts himself in a completely different movement style during a solo choreographed by Nam near the end. Moreover, the scenes rooted in African American life prove much more distinctive than those that treat the story abstractly--and thus invite comparisons with masterworks by Martha Graham.
Finally, Taylor doesn't always find plausible ways of moving from narrative pantomime into formal dancing, and such lapses undercut the credibility of what follows. So much works so splendidly in "Odysseus Suite" that one hopes she will be inspired to fix the rest.