Dance New Horizons; A Review

The weekend of October 5 and 6 saw a brand new project step into the spotlight. Courtesy of Dance St. Louis, the New Dance Horizons presentation matched  different renowned choreographers commissioned to create or re-set works on four existing local companies. It was a voyage into the unknown for all parties involved; the choreographers did not know the caliber of dancer they would have to work with, the directors no clue if the new work would fit with the majority of existing company repertoire, the administration unsure of how the community would react to this blend of local and foreign talents.

Luckily, the matching of company and guest choreographer was a task handled by Dance St. Louis Director, Michael Uthoff, as was choosing the local companies. Representing the local St. Louis scene were MADCO, St. Louis Ballet, Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company, and Leverage Dance Theater and were paired respectively, with Gina Patterson, Pam Tanowitz, Jessica Lang, and Victoria Marks.

The show opened with Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company in Jessica Lang’s, ‘Anonymous’. The opening solo felt like a quiet invasion on a trapped woman. The way the soloist would often hide her face behind her arms, rotate and suspend in turns, hinges,  and promenades only to sharply pull away, off the leg, or fall to the ground gave the sense of a fighting spirit within unhappy circumstance. A program note explained the piece with a Virgina Woolf quote, ‘For most of history, anonymous was a woman’. The solo looked like a woman trying to grasp her own identity and perhaps femininity in moments of pulling at the skirt on her costume. Highly contrasted from movement focusing on concealment were moments of exposing the face and chest towards the single spotlight. There was a sort of identity crisis going on between the anonymity and identity, the fighting and the acceptance.  It is a credit to Lang to be able to convey so much through movement, a testament to the soloist (Mariko Kumanomido or Tara W.F. Cacciatore) to be able to speak so loudly through the technique. The lighting of the piece was extremely atmospheric, from the cold cell-like spotlight during the opening solo to the use of silhouettes as the remaining six women appear behind the scrim. As much as the soloist seemed to waver between strength and fragility, the remaining ensemble represented nothing but grit, grace, and tenacity. To add to Woolf’s quote, throughout much of history, the strength of women has been underestimated and the women of Common Thread danced as if on a mission to dismiss any doubts. The second movement employed dancing that was fast, isometric, and sharply transitioned from groundwork and crawling action to surging leaps all through beautiful staging in structured groups and weaving patterns.  The ending, with the ensemble retreating in one last ferocious jump to dive under the scrim and stand silhouetted as the soloist continues to walk toward the audience made for a powerful and emotional impact. Exactly what was said, I’m not really sure. I personally had different images of strength and the importance of pursuing dreams or even basic rights with conviction and how we are strengthened by a strong surrounding community but I’m not totally sure this is what the choreographer had in mind. Overall, the piece was danced and choreographed with excellent attention to classical forms and formation, creative contemporary influences, and a lot of thought-provocation without an easy answer.

Next was Saint Louis Ballet in ‘La Tristesse de Saint Louis’ choreographed by Pam Tanowitz. Opening with a female soloist emerging from the audience dancing in front of the lowered curtain to amorphous mechanical music, this was certainly a departure from the classical to neo-classical repertoire that I personally connect with my ideas of St. Louis Ballet. There was really a lot going on in this piece; the costumes that looked like normal rehearsal-ware, the curtain going up and down, dancers coming out the audience, tap on pointe, a choppy score of non-melodic music; there’s no doubt that it was an interesting piece, if only because I was trying so desperately to make some sense of it. A note in the program described the piece as ‘ a misinterpretation and exploration of ballet vocabulary’ and would be structured by dictation from the new score. The score was indeed, as scattered as much of the choreography seemed to be but I didn’t see much exploration of ballet vocabulary. I saw a balance entournant circle and a lot of basic partnering just split apart and accompanied by a bad attempt at a joke of a partnered pirouette. I luckily did also see stunning ballet technique from the dancers of St. Louis Ballet. The men looked strong in coupe jete entournant and arguably the best part of the piece was a short section with six women, beginning with chennes. The choreography did offer many technical moments for these dancers to shine; On my notepad, I have ‘beautiful emboites’ scribbled in regards to a soloist female, ‘impressive pique turns’ to the lead dancers. It was easy to pay attention to the technical merits of the dancers because they are so gifted and because it was a piece that was for me, so confusing, that I felt it must be my duty to analyze the actual technique to attempt to grasp for meaning. I tried to notice the lack the port de bras during the fast footwork in the opening solo, how the softening of the upper body concurred with a musical change, how the grande plie seemed to happen as the curtain came up. The curtain may rise, but any sense from this piece for me, unfortunately lies as dead and still as the dancer at the end seems to be. Special mention must go to leads Kate Rouzer and Michael McGonegal for flawless and impressive dancing, even if I’m unsure what the real purpose was. Perhaps there wasn’t one, and if it is just going to be dancing movement’s sake, at least it is carried out by dancers as good as these. I personally would like more cohesive music and better costumes should that be the case, but that’s just me.Or is it?

Following intermission was ‘Dancing to Music’ by Victoria Marks, performed by Leverage Dance Theatre. The piece was originally conceived with the idea of stripping movement to its bare essentials and how meaning arises from movement. Dressed in pedestrian dark clothing, the four females did little more than you might see any average person doing while standing at the bus stop. In fact, I kept imagining the dancers in different scenarios while doing this dance as it seemed the environment might drastically change the piece, even if the steps remained exactly the same. Most of the movement and meaning behind it seemed to extend beyond the performers line of sight. I found myself wondering, ‘what are they looking at and why are they occasionally turning their heads to see in canon versus looking all together?‘ It was a piece where my mind occasionally wandered, lost in the beautiful piece of music by Wim Mertens, trying to figure out the relationships between the cast of characters. To their credit, the dancers of Leverage Dance Theater brought emotional intensity and great performance quality to restricted movement, their great sense of musicality the only thing taking this piece from pedestrian to organized art. For me, it was a bit long and I hated the moment in the end when one dancer took the hand of another. Whereas everything before had been so incredibly open to interpretation, that small moment took it into a cheesy and forced realm for me. Overall, it felt more like an experience of emotion, like a psychology experiment, more than a dance showcase. I don’t believe that dance has to be high kicks and spins to be dance, but with such a great effect on the head and heart done with such little physicality, it seemed to qualify more as performance art. I’m glad it wasn’t a full concert of that. I enjoyed it, but a little goes a long way.

Closing the show was a collaboration between MADCO, choreographer Gina Patterson, and live music from the Soulard Blues Band. This was a piece that spanned several songs of varying tempos, the use of props, and all range of delight. While MADCO is predominantly a modern company, the piece brought out a lot of jazz and swing technique. While it was a guessing game in the previous pieces of intentions or character, these dancers left nothing to imagination of who was sensual, dramatic, goofy, and every single one was perfection in their role. particularly wonderful in a quirky, sassy solo opening the third movement was dancer Lindsay Hawkins who employed stunningly smooth and lightning fast technique with what felt like a stare down with the audience. The athletic virtuosity of these dancers, especially working as a large ensemble- jumping, falling to the ground, and doing so with style and panache is incredible but is second-fiddle to their performance quality. This is not because they don’t cleanly land their pirouettes, or hit a full 180 extension on a sissone, but because it isn’t as noticeable or necessary to isolate in order to fully enjoy the vision unfolding onstage. Full congratulations and thanks go to choreographer Gina Patterson for creating such an inspiring gift of dance. I’d imagine that this piece left others, besides me, wanting to go out and dance just like these dancers. Watching it, I was reminded of well-revered pieces from other famous choreographers; Wade Robson, Frank Chaves, Alvin Ailey. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing to be reminded of other art or if that means it’s a bit less original. I think it’s a piece that is easy to slip into, to ‘get’ and enjoy without wondering the great meaning. It was maybe not particularly deep, but it was flawlessly created and executed.

Many people argue over the meaning of art; is it to entertain, to invoke emotion, to push boundaries. The Dance New Horizons performance managed to do all of these in one short evening. Offering something for every palette, the show was a taste of the talents within this city, the possibilities of dance, and of the great things to come for the rest of the Dance St. Louis season.

‘Behind the Scenes’ Re-cap of the tour coming soon!