The Company of Greatness
May 24th through the 26th saw the fifth annual production of Dance St. Louis’ ‘Spring to Dance’ Festival. Over the course of three evenings, thirty companies representing the ‘best of the Midwest and beyond’ travel to St. Louise for a non-stop showcase of top-quality performances across the spectrum of dance mediums. With offerings in ballet to tap, jazz to contemporary from local to International companies the Festival had something for everyone. Whatever the taste of the viewer, each night produced pieces to both start conversations and to quiet the chatter and stop hearts.
I personally have saved most of my programs from the past presentations of Spring to Dance, admittedly for a selfish reason. Beyond wanting to remember each dance-packed experience, the Festival brings together a cluster of the elite companies, the most inspiring talent that any young dancer might want to be. The program serves as a pretty convenient and nice list of organizations to later check out on the internet, to see which might be holding an audition. It’s a trap for a dancer to sit in a show, to be particularly struck by a piece or a single dancer and to think ‘that’s what I want to be’ and to then try to chase that company down. As a dancer who has at this point, taken a full year off of performing, it can be potentially really depressing to see this assembly line of those dancers who really ‘made it’, are doing great work with impressive icons on the dance scene. There exists right onstage, the dancers and companies that I would love to audition for, be accepted to, be molded into.
All jealousy aside, it’s somehow inspiring to see someone with similar goals excelling. I understand those desires. The need to move, to be seen, to be approved of is the great equalizer of us all, varying degrees of rotation aside. If we can’t be them, at least we get to see them. In critiquing dance, I admit to having trouble separating myself from my past as a dancer. I watch a performance and I can imagine how a step would feel in my own immobile body. That is, in those pieces that are successful; those which allow the viewer to realize that good performance is not only seen, but felt. I think that sensation applies to those of who spent every waking moment in the studio to the novice dance-goer. It’s simply human instinct to be able to know when one is in the company of greatness.
Thursday brought some very nice dancing and especially great imagination to the stage. Eisenhower Dance Ensemble had identifiable charming moments within ‘Love, Love, Love’ that brought to life experiences we’ve all, sadly, probably had. Especially attention-catching was the human ‘spin the bottle’ game. The world-famous Pilobolus was of course unexpected, innovative, and stunningly executed in Michael Tracy’s ‘Symbiosis’. Dancers Mark Fucik and Renee Jaworski formed an evolving partnership that displayed incredible flexibility, balance, and strength in an almost contortionistic quality. A bit of the choreography that particularly stood out was an impressive lift sequence into Jaworski balancing in a primitive squat position on Fucik’s shoulders as he continued moving- but that is also coming from someone with inflexible Achilles muscles. The dancer in me always notices the stuff I wouldn’t be able to do. I wish this piece had been on a different night from Buglisi Dance Theatre’s presentation of ‘Threshold’ with choreography from the artistic Director, Jacqulyn Buglisi. This is simply because both this and Piloblus brought adagio pas de deuxs and I felt that the power of each was slightly diminished with anything even slightly comparable. That being said, ‘Threshold’ is really incomparable to anything I’ve seen before. This piece brought me through such a dramatic trajectory of emotion. At first sight and sound, the use of Arvo Part’s music only conjured up images of Ulysees Dove’s ‘Dancing on the Front Porch of Heaven’ (an especially beloved piece of mine) and it annoyed me to hear it somewhere else. The contracting and expanding dancer underneath the stretchy piece of fabric also reminded me of Martha Graham’s famous ‘Lamentation’. So this piece from the get-go, felt like a mixed knock-off of two existing pieces of well-loved choreography. However, as Virginie Mecene emerged from the cloth and Kevin Predmore entered for this strange and disquieting pas de deux, annoyance turned to an uncomfortable fascination that was ultimately impossible to turn away from. The piece used movement efforts not usually seen in dance that can be considered beautiful- crawling, stomping, climbing- yet it somehow was. Throughout the piece, I barely blinked, breathed, or any function normal to everyday existence. As the warmth of humanity felt somehow stripped between the two performers, I could notice nothing within my own reaction but the prickling on the back of my neck, a desire to resist watching and an inability to do so. Thursday’s performance truly belonged to Kimberly Cowen in two pieces from Kansas City Ballet. In Todd Boldender’s, ‘Souvenirs’ Cohen and partner Logan Pachciarz brought pizzaz and style to wonderfully humorous choreography that showed the performers dance and comedy skills. The piece felt like an old-fashioned soap opera in which they don’t know that we’re laughing at them, and are all the more enjoyable for their dramatic sentiments. These two were again delightful in William Whitener’s excerpt from ‘Carmen’, a favored role of Cowen and a perfect way to end her twenty-year performing career with Kansas City Ballet. Her clarity of line and extension were and have always been praise-worthy, but what perhaps has always made her stand out and given her the lengthy and successful career that she has shared with audiences is the full-embodiment of character and musicality in each role. A true artist and a great lady, Cohen has left performing on a high and it’s the rest of us that now have to endure the come-down.
Friday’s performances included two exceptional presentations from local companies; Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company opened the night with a sweeping and detailed presentation of artistic director Jennifer Medina’s piece, ‘Women of the Cove’, while MADCO brought possibly the most energizing piece of the festival with Michael Foley’s ‘Fuse’. Another piece that brought emotions and aggression to the surface was Lula Washington Dance Theatre’s, ‘We Wore The Mask’. These dancers brought a fiery vitality, humor, and incredible stamina to a piece that morphed between what looked like African, Hip-Hop, contemporary, and theatrics. BalletX brought two pieces, both excellent, but especially memorable was ‘It’s not a Cry’ choreographed by Amy Seiwert set to the Jeff Buckley cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen a pas de deux set to this music so I was perhaps prejudiced against enjoying this one right-off-the-bat. Maybe it was the incredibly detailed choreography or the impeccable performance from dancers Chloe Horne and William Cannon but the experience of watching this piece was unlike any time I’ve listened to that song, or seen dance set to it. The choreography was so technically demanding, the partnering had to be flawless to make the relationship at all convincing. I found myself as a dancer noticing the intricacy of the choreography, how hard it would be to execute, but in many moments, my brain quieted and all I felt was the physical sensation of a lump in my throat. It was that feeling of wanting so desperately to be able to say something to a loved one and the incredible frustration of not being able to say it that was present int he mix of tension and fluidity from the dancers. So to the creators of this piece, I’m saying now, ‘I love you guys’. An equally impressive piece set to secular music was Momenta’s ‘Indecision’ with music from Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Both dancers brought an amazing sense of presence and a lack of hesitation which made the piece much more exciting. The choreography made excellent use of wheelchair-bound dancer Kris Lenzo, and treated what might typically be considered a disability as a springboard for greater movement, speed, and innovation that was dynamic and inspiring. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival came from Sossy Mechanics and their excerpt of ‘Trick Boxing’ a dance and theatre show that combined script, song, and dance, and funny voices- always a selling point for me. Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek were like the prize at the bottom of a cracker-jack box; their performance was a sugar-rush of comedic and expert script-writing, choreography, and delivery. If I were to follow my former self and consider sending my resume to any of the Spring to Dance companies, Sossy Mechanics would be on top of the list. That kind of creativity, humor, and talent is something anyone would want to either see or be onstage. Appealing again to the dancer in me were Fernando Sabino and Maggie Small in Richmond Ballet’s presentation of the renowned ‘After Eden’ choreographed in 1965 by John Butler. This was possibly the toughest, most exhausting piece of the Festival. Sabino seemed to tackle choreography like a confrontation while Small contrasted his overt strength with a lyric sense of elongation into each technical demand. I particularly remember one moment of fondu into a perfect attitude derriere, and repeating the sequence several times from Smalls that made my dancer-critic eyes bug out of my head. This is stuff I would not want to attempt, choreography for both dancers that just seems mean- unless you’re in the audience seat watching these two. In this case it’s an incomparable gift.
I must admit that I sadly didn’t make it to see Lucky Plush Productions open the Saturday performance because I was in fact, auditioning for a company represented in the Festival. The first piece I saw was Neos Dance Theatre in Alejandro Cerrudo’s ‘Lickety-Split’. I hardly know how to describe this piece as so much of the vocabulary was outside of commonly defined steps. It was however, absolutely beautiful- the sense of movement, the sliding action, and androgynous fluidity of these dancers was stunning. I can’t identify specific dancers but the guy with the long hair and the flawless surging quality was one of the stand-out performers of the Festival. Other stand-out guys were Andy and Rick Ausland from Buckets and Tap Shoes. Some people claim to have rhythm in their hearts, and maybe these two do, but they obviously have it in the distal proportions of their hands and feet with masterful percussion playing as well as tap. I can claim neither drumming nor tap in my tool belt of skills so this was one where I could ignore the critic and just enjoy, but I’m pretty sure that’s just the Buckets and Tap Shoes effect on everyone. If any one company could be pinpointed for their overwhelming effect on the audience as a whole, it would have to be River North Dance Chicago in Frank Chaves’, ‘Sentir Em Nos’. Dancers Michael Gross and Melanie Manale-Hortin seemed almost surprised yet delighted with the standing ovation but they shouldn’t be. Chaves’ choreography had every bit of flash and depth that an audience could want. From the moment the piece began, the drama of the music, the sumptuous hanging background curtains, and the elegant costumes served as the perfect framework for exquisite execution of intricate choreography. This was a piece that demanded nothing from the audience, and gave us everything.
Far out-of-town guests came in the form of Canadian company, Q Dance, with the excerpt of Artistic director Peter Quanz’s, ‘In Tandem’. This piece was everything that I love about ballet and proof that even in the surge of newer more contemporary styles, gorgeous ballet is not dead. Every dancer was a paragon of technical perfection in unbelievably hard choreography. Especially memorable were turn sequences from female dancers that finished in one-legged poses like arabesques and a diagonal sequence of a grand jete into a pirouette again landing in an arabesque. Beyond the dazzle of technique, the overall effect of the piece was something akin to being caught up in a wind. It was light, dizzying, and crisp, a tribute to both dancer and choreographer. While music from Steve Reich perfectly suited the piece, if set to something more overtly cheerful, ‘Tandem’ could have potentially closed the show. The mood created by music is so important, as shown by The Dancing Wheels Company in ‘Above’ choreographed by Daniel Job. Music from Samuel Barber sets a high standard for artistic work and ‘Above’ rose to the occasion. This was not overtly a piece of integration between the disabled and otherwise labeled. I appreciated that similar lifts and poses were executed by both female performers which emphasized the connecting factors not the distinguishing ones, between people. The dancing itself was also impressive with particularly nice jumps from Daniel ‘Isaah’ Henderson and Franklin Polk. Every dancer has some sort of limitation, whether it be emotional, mental, or physical and a great director and choreographer will find a way to utilize that in choreography, to work with it not around it. Closing the Festival for the second year in a row was Memphis Ballet, this year with Matthew Neenan’s ‘Water of the Flowery Mill’. The piece was everything that Memphis does so well; perfect classical technique outlined by gorgeous music and costumes and emphasized by quirky, whimsical touches.
I think the two questions I most often hear post-show are, ‘did you like it?’ and ‘what did you think?’. Was the show pleasing, enjoyable, stimulating, interesting, are all questions that feed into the bigger quandary which most critics aspire to answer, which is if a show is worth the public’s time and money. Besides the technical merit of these companies, Spring to Dance is one of those shows that is easy to endorse as an experience. It is educational, cheap, good for our St. Louis community and reputation. Mostly, it is just a wonderful thing to have so much excellence brought right to our door. For me personally though, Spring to Dance is one of those shows that some of my ‘non-theatre going’ friends will go to see because of the variety and price. It is a show that my fellow dancer friends, who are usually too busy working or saving money to go see other performances in town, will sacrifice the time to see. It’s a show that promises to be so great that friends who have since moved away will re-visit St. Louis to see. Spring to Dance single-handedly makes St. Louis a tourist point, a community, and a gathering place for so many of my dear friends. It’s hard to tell when I say, ‘in the company of greatness’, if I’m referring to the people onstage or the people in the audience. Spring to Dance is one with both. So to answer all questions, I think it’s an essential and treasured part of my life and community and I like it very much.