Rounding out the month of March, Modern American Dance Company, better known as MADCO, brings their 35th Anniversary Concert to the Lee Theatre in the Touhill Performing Arts Center. The company brought some of their oldest pieces of repertoire to the table, conjuring up the choreographic voices of founders Alcine Wiltz and Ross Winter. The concert also presents choreography from Joseph Mills, a former company member who in the pre-show discussion admitted to enormous personal and artistic growth taking place under MADCO’s wing. As education is an important part of MADCo’s mission, it is fitting that both community and company should feel these benefits. Artistic director, Stacy West, said that a pattern exists within MADCO; young dancers sometimes fresh out of college grow up in the well-established company through what is often their first professional experience. Judging from their March 30th performance, they seem like a band of well-seasoned professionals to me. Right in time for the beginning of April, National Poetry Month, the concert is a perfect celebration of their past, present, and future as a St. Louis institution and representation of the poetry of motion.
Dance and poetry, two things that I love so dearly. Both arts forms can be so beautiful, well-constructed, funny, touching, and in the amateur hands, go oh-so-wrong. Just look at any of my old journals. A common trap for many aspiring writers is to think that adding polysyllabic words somehow makes a piece better; that the writer will seem ‘smarter’ with a richer vocabulary. As a critic, it can be easy to fall upon the same adjectives to do the talking, to call a piece beautiful, well-constructed, funny, touching. When a performance comes along as fresh, unexpected, and masterfully handled as MADCO’s I feel compelled to use the depths of my vocabulary to describe it. Here goes.
The show opens with ‘Other Realities’, choreographed in 1982 by founder Winter and set to music by Michael Hunt. However, it is hard to set a specific time or place on a piece such as this which felt more like ancient liturgy. The stage is flooded with warm golden light, shining from what would be East for the dancers and the sculptural tree set off-center, decorated with gold shapes suspended away from the branches. Dance has served in ancient ceremony throughout traceable human history and this piece felt like both a tribute to early spiritual worship and to the earlier days of MADCO. The wind-chime featured in the score and simple androgynous muted costumes, mixed with the incredible stability and grace of the dancers forming architectural balances on one leg heightened the experience of the timelessness and purpose of dance in nature.
Changing the pace, next came four female dancers in Wiltz’s ‘Crimson Momentum’, choreographed in 1990. Dressed in stiff, satiny red dresses, the dancers contrasted explosive jumps with elegant carriage of the arms. Near-violent strings supplied by the Kronos Quartet added to the feeling of tension bubbling just beneath a glossy surface. Red or crimson brings up such obvious mental images of passion and aggression but this piece managed to channel that from the waist down, while the upper body and faces of the performers seemed always controlled and elegant. It felt to me like a view of the rigidity, forced appearances, and drama of upper-crust society, almost a danced episode of ‘Downton Abbey’.
Closing the first act was the premier of Mills‘ ‘Getting Lucky; Secret Moments in the Natural World’. Yes, the piece is exactly what you’re likely to imagine from such a title, the fascinating mating habits of various invented creatures with text and narration by Alan Wade. A spotlight shines on an empty podium in the downstage corner as different species are introduced and dancers wearing all manner of sexy or silly costumes bring the malarkey of text and movement of the mating rituals to life. This piece was a masterful combination of idea and execution, poetry of language and body language, and absolutely hilarious every step of the way. I wish that Pet’s Mart had these imaginary animals for sale. I would adopt and love them all, as much as I loved and laughed at this piece.
Opening act two was ‘Blue Days, Yellow Dreams’ by company member, Lindsay Hawkins with music from Yann Tiersen and Penguin Cafe Orchestra. I must admit to a bit of a personal flashback here as i myself have set a piece to the same Tiersen piece, that had almost shocking similarities in the use of prop, lighting, and even construction, with a solo female against a corps that she faces and wanders through in isolatory fashion. I like to think that this serves as a testament to understanding and tapping into the indicative tone of the music, resulting in a somewhat similar dance piece. Though I might just want to compare myself to Hawkins. The second half took a lighter tone, with a more youthful and communal feel. I would have liked to see the staccato energy of the music reflected more with a few dancers who employed a more indirect energy into their movement as it would have served the brightness more without a floating quality. It looked as though some dancers weren’t on the same emotional page as what seemed to me, the heart of the piece. A great aspect of this work was that it did indeed have heart and personality. It is easy to spot a Tim Burton film or a Jackson Pollock painting because those artists have such clear visions and personal style. Watching Hawkin’s choreography, you get a sense of the creator behind the work, as is the case with many great masters.
‘Warm Beer, Cold Women’ choreographed in 1996 by Sara Brummel with music by Tom Waits was a singular highlight for many reasons; soloist Jason Flodder first seemed a bit apprehensive in movement, but as the lyrics and gesture indicated a few drinks down the hatch, began to lose himself in the music and movement without losing any technique. Gabriella Deakin and Jeff Mitchell were the perfect contrast behind Flodder; composed and elegant as he was personable and almost pitiable. I could practically hear slurred words as he suspended, stretched, and spinned. MADCO often does group numbers so well, it was a treat to indulge in one dancer. By the end, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give him a standing ovation or an aspirin.
Closing the show was the premier of ‘Fuse’ with choreography by Michael Foley and an array of music from DJ Shadow, The Knife, and The Chemical Brothers. This is the kind fo piece I often associate with the current MADCO dancers; fast-paced, cutting-edge, and athletic. I felt that the transitions between each musical selection felt too slow and perhaps a bit disjointed. It was a piece that maybe had too many ideas. The dance vocabulary was astounding, rich and intricate, but I felt that one section could have expanded to fit the entire piece to emphasize a stronger overall picture. A particularly enjoyable moment came from a group of four men, who moved into each jump or lift with incredible attack. Overall, it was an enjoyable, dance-til-you-drop experience and certainly showcased the strength and stamina of these artists.
I think one of the worst insults I’ve ever heard towards a dancer is that they would only be hired to stand in the corps and look pretty, that they aren’t actually capable of the technique or performance of dance. This is kind of like bad poems, where it’s pretty obvious someone chose a word because they think it looks or sounds cool but doesn’t serve much functional purpose. Each individual dancer, or word, carries meaning when it does more than look pretty standing alone. It takes a mature approach to construct both a rich, intricate, well-constructed poem and a performance, as MADCO has proven their ability to do so over the course of thirty-five years. Since MADCO manages to apply a plethora of adjectives, funny, engaging, sculptural, graceful, in a show, hopefully the writers out there, myself included, can use them in a sentence.
Put your own inner-critic and thesaurus to work for their final performance tonight at 8. Tickets available at the door or for purchase through the Touhill Online Box Office. Also check out a previous review with Alive Magazine and previous Mock-review Here.