May 23, 24, 25 saw the 6th return of the annual Spring to Dance Festival. What began as ‘best of the midwest’ has steadily grown each year to include increasingly prestigious companies and celebrated stars from across North America. As described by Dance St. Louis Artistic Director Michael Uthoff, the 2013 series intended to encourage creativity and the unusual. The Festival serves as an introduction to new artists, concepts, and boundaries from the top of the current dance world.
There is something comforting about the familiar, something that makes art strike a chord when there is a mental, physical, or emotional connection to any given presentation. The Festival this year seemed to feature pieces that attempted to form this bond from various angles, some to more or less success.
Kicking off the entire Festival on Thursday in the Lee Theatre was Dance Theatre of Tennessee in ‘Points of Interest’. The piece, with a male solo, then female, then duet, then two group sections, was far too long and disjointed. They should have done away with the entire first group section which was only awkward running in point shoes for the ladies and heavy stag leaps for the men. The choreography improved with the faster group section and displayed the nice extension of the females but overall ‘Points of Interest’ seemed to have too many gimmicks- a spotlight here, a ‘contemporary’ hairstyle matched with Grecian dresses there– and not enough clarity in either message or technique. The show didn’t improve much with Joselyn Renae Simms piece, ‘Standards’ which was supposed to tune into the choreographic elements of Pina Bausch while making a statement on gender roles, and expectations of elders, and every other pretentious thing that can be conceived. What it instead looked like was a barely-danced fight on top of a rickety stool between parent and child. The on-again off-again of a dress for the female was reminiscent of a toddler that doesn’t want to get dressed to the frustrated parent’s aggravation. The two looked in sparing moments like talented dancers; if only they had used those talents, perhaps more than frustration would have been communicated. Changing the pace was Kameron N. Saunders’, ‘Treading Thin’. This piece requires no gimmicks; with a simple, explorative concept of Hypnagogia, intricate dynamic choreography and flawless dancing from the five performers.It looked less like drifting to and from sleep and more like the mental and physical sensation of being ‘spread too thin’ but that may be a hang-up from the title and because of the repetitive clasping at the body, which looked thematic. The connection was more towards the physical than the mental in that the capabilities of these dancers in aggressive yet hypnotic choreography was the most engaging factor, and perhaps that is exactly what the piece set out to do. Offering a different kind of connection was Leverage Dance Theater in Kim Epifano’s, ‘Were They Allies?’ The four dancers simultaneously conveyed reliance and relationships in a piece that was humorous, full of imagery, and well-danced. Last in the Lee was Damagedance in Jessica Taylor’s ‘Finding Flight’. The idea wasn’t too much of a stretch but it offered a cheerful, cute closer, well-danced in choreography that was imaginative and probably a lot harder (especially with all of the falls) than these dancers made it appear.
Thursday continued in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall with The Big Muddy Dance Company in ‘Three for Four’, another piece from Saunders. While mimicking the dynamics of classical music, the dancers looked like manic, brilliant composers. This piece perfectly matched concept with choreography, blended the familiar music with fresh movement and was danced superbly.As poet W. H. Auden wrote, ‘ The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye on the other hand, tends to be impatient craves the novel and is bored by repetition’. This piece satisfies both the need for the familiar and the new. It was playful and technical with many impressive moments of partnering. The only improvement would be if the one male wearing the red jacket in the opening would lose the coat and just have the white sleeved shirt like the other three.
Next came the highly-anticipated rendition of David Parsons, ‘The Envelope’ danced by Grand Rapids Ballet. This was a dance that made fun of itself, of dance and work and egos all at once in the most athletic, creative, and quirky way. Both maverick and genius at once, the piece employed dance movement such as challenging jumps mixed in with quirkier movement to merely create narrative and characters perfectly brought to life by these talented dancers. Equally, but differently successful was ‘Tales from the Book of Longing’ from Stuart Pimsler Dance Theater. With the addition of scenic elements that looked like large-scale opened books, rich a capella vocals from one dancer, and sinewy dancing the piece was pleasing for both the eye and ear. While noticeable feats occurred within the stunning choreography and strong, sensual dancing (for instance, a triple attitude turn finished with delicate suspension from the female dancer with the short brown hair) the piece was communicative on a more soulful level than feats of technique. Closing the first half was an equally resonant piece, ‘Push Past Break’, from Chicago Human Rhythm Project. Each of the five tappers brought a unique personality to their performance, synced perfectly in group work and dazzling in moments of solo. Dancer Starinah Dixon was particularly memorable- tough, sexy, powerful, and fun- and completely lived up to her name. In choreography from Michelle Dorrance, these artists called forth a spirit of both resiliency and joy that one can only hope is familiar to us all.
Travelling all the way from San Francisco was ODC/Dance in KT Nelson’s ‘Cut-Out Guy’. The piece was obviously intended to be a little uncomfortable, confrontational and succeeded greatly in that pursuit. It was undoubtedly the most challenging piece for the audience on the evening’s program without any of the familiar comforts most people have with dance- pretty girls, pretty costumes, pretty music. Nothing about this piece was pretty, it was raw and courageous (the jump from one dancer over two fellow dancers) and beautiful even if the music was jarring and sounded more like static fuzz. It is human nature to feel uncomfortable in the face of the unknown, hence the propensity to distrust, misunderstand, or dislike the innovators.
An easier piece on the ears was Jennifer Muller’s, ‘Hymn for Her’ danced exquisitely by Rosie Lani Fieldman and Duane Gosa. The opening image, with the man held aloft on a trapeze over the solo female, was quite stunning and it was an easy piece to appreciate and connect with. I admire a high leg, a dramatic head toss, and an emotional reach just as much as the next person but it became a little repetitive.The Big Muddy Dance Company closed the show with ‘The 40’s’ which was stylish, cool, and cleanly danced. The energy level was a bit uneven from the dancers, some seeming to genuinely enjoy themselves more than others. Overall, it was a charming high-note to end the evening.
Friday had a mix of high and low notes in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall. The Joffrey Ballet in ‘Bells’ was one such high. With music by Rachmaninov and beautiful partnering that displayed the unmatched beauty of dancers Victoria Jaiani (interview by Jess Ruhlin with Victoria) and Temur Suluashvili the piece offered an emotional connection relatable to all through elevated and elegant physicality. Local group MADCO in Lindsay Hawkins’, ‘Conversations and Fits’ brought a reverse effect, having fun with themselves, each other, and the audience. Choreography that is both funny and smart is a tricky blend to achieve as is a mix of technique and being silly and MADCO did not disappoint. Camille A. Brown in ‘The Real Cool’ fell somewhere between the two, with a unique movement vocabulary, facial expressions, and movement that looked almost mime-like yet retained the elegance and beauty like that of the Joffrey dancers. Closing the show, Thodos Dance Chicago provided both challenge and wonder in director Melissa Thodos’, ‘Subtle Passages’. It is rare for a non-cheerful piece to close a show but the piece brought so much drama and power that it didn’t to be ‘happy’ to make the audience feel just that for seeing it. Every element was well thought-out; from the costumes to the surprising use of lighting. Watching the tireless athleticism of these dancers, especially during the moment when the men lifted the women horizontally, spinning them like helicopter blades, feels something like what I’d imagine sky-diving to be; exhilarating, a little dangerous, a free-fall from angelic elevation into an earth-bound plunge.
I can comfortably say..that the Festival provided a good array of the familiar and the new to challenge, delight, and speak to everyone in some way. One can only wonder and look forward to the new faces, concepts, and creations will join the tradition next year.
‘Familiar acts are made beautiful with love” – Percy Bisshe Shelley