New Dance Horizons Review: Then and Now

It has been almost a month since St. Louis saw the return of the New Dance Horizons Showcase at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. The program from the Friday night opening on October 5th has been gathering dust on my desk while flashbulb memories of beautiful choreography and stunning execution linger on in the mind, strangely clear and permanent. A good dance performance will give you that.

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The showcase is intended to display four of the finest professional companies in St. Louis and their various styles; returning for the second year were St. Louis Ballet Company, MADCO, Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company, and Leverage Dance Theater. .Artistic Director of Dance St  Louis, Michael Uthoff, selects four renowned choreographers, one for each company to create either an original premier or restage a commissioned piece. This in effect, brings the outside world of thriving dance into the St. Louis community. LIke any organism, the introduction of a new element is bound to bring forth change. This is the challenge and wonder of New Dance Horizons; not only are the works new, but the tone of the show, the maturity demanded of the audience, and the presentation of each company saw a dramatic evolution.

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Last year, the show opened with Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company’s presentation of ‘Anonymous’ choreographed by Jessica Lang and inspired by a rather vague and out-of-context quote from Virginia Wolff. THe piece was emotionally evocative, a dynamic mix of fragility and strength, an adagio soloist with a powerful group. ‘Anonymous’ showcased the overall athletic grace of the Common Thread dancers. This year, the company worked with Uri Sands in his creation of ‘One’ inspired by the life of Henreitta Lacks.

It isn’t easy to call dancers that are constantly hunched over and shaking, as if having a seizure, graceful but the piece itself and the tribute to Lacks was a demonstration of grace amidst a building storm. From the opening with soloist Tara WF.Cacciatore, to the duet, then quartet, that group of eight females, the piece built momentum that swept the stage in usually group formation. Here and there a dancer would break off in isolation only to rejoin subtly amongst the group in the way that time, illness, the outside world marches on without our ability to protest, to do anything but rejoin the progression. The dancers looked as if they were swept up in a current, never stopping their movement even if it seemed a choreographed struggle to just keep staggering forward. (And it felt that way in times to dance it.) Moments of suspension hung just long enough to propel them forward with more inertia into the next phrase. The only moment of stillness in a dancer came at the absolute end, when soloist Cacciatore stopped dead center, the surrounding seven dancers gathering buckets as a flow of dark confetti fell from above. The buckets seemed to symbolize a harvest; of information, of inspiration, of much that was and is gained from Henrietta Lacks and her legacy and that will continue to march forward even if a single life is stopped. Common Thread has been lucky two years running with gorgeous, exciting pieces from Jessica Lang and Uri Sands, even with the loss of former company members and the evolution with the new dancers. This is the cycle of dance companies, the never-ending evolution of new dancers and therefore a new group, taking whatever gifts happen to fall upon us.

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(Interesting fact, last year’s ‘Anonymous’ ended with soloist Cacciatore walking towards the audience as the rest of the group retreated into stillness while this year she stood alone, with the rest of the group marched slowly onwards.  As is shown by this curious flip-flop, some things do change.)

St. Louis Ballet is populated by some truly stunning dancers and these technical capabilities have brilliantly shone in both last year’s piece by Pam Tanowitz and this year’s work, Figurant’ by up-and-coming superstar Emory LeCrone. The stereotypical consensus of ballet is comprised of a few key elements: sparkly costumes, lush classical music, all things pretty and beautiful and romantic. There were a lot of strange elements to last year’s piece (dancers walking onstage from the audience, weird mechanical sounding music, classroom attire for costumes) but none of the pretty stuff applied. It was interesting but not easily enjoyable. ‘Figurant’ also had a rather sparse stage picture, with dancers emerging and disappearing in and out of the dark back space of the stage, rather than seeing them come and go from the wings. They were again in minimal costumes which both allowed the audience to see the body without distraction and added a clean, almost mechanical and regimented feel to the performance. The piece this year was much more cohesive and the movement more explorative. Particularly in the first group section, there were small differences in timing, points of initiation, and momentum. Some dancers looked like the movement was inspired by the music, some looked like they were dancing on top of it and it never quite resonated fully in the body. It is unclear which was the desired effect. The men looked particularly strong; an exciting moment came in the duet between Michael McGonegal and Takahito Kamimura with perfect double tours that transitioned to modern floorwork.  One fantastic aspect of work that goes outside of classical vocabulary is being able to see which dancers are both strong and versatile in their technique. Of course the dancers have beautiful bodies, fabulous extension, gorgeous feet but there were a few moments of struggle in musicality during ensemble moments, particularly the chennes near the end of the piece. This is probably due more to a lack of core strength than trouble feeling the music. In this piece with those costumes, there was no hiding if a dancer was not stable and therefore a little off the music. 

Even without a particular narrative or emotion to relay, some dancers were more dynamic and expressive than others. ‘Figurant’ really showed off the talented facilities of all of the St. Louis Ballet dancers and showed who in the company has a lot more to offer than a nice arabesque. In the pas de deux, dancers Stephen Lawrence and Audrey Honert were undeniably flawless and impressive. Honert has a remarkably detailed and sensitive approach to each movement without a trace of stiffness. In the midst of constant undulation and developpe, it would have been nice to see a moment of suspension here and there, just to allow the audience to admire the incredible picture. (If someone is as stunning as Honert, and can put her leg up that high, that turned out, please just hold it there for a second so that we can stop and say wow!)The overall effect was hypnotic but a little monotonous in effort. ‘Figurant’ was enjoyable as a visual spectacle and it was nice this year to see the sophisticated artistry possessed by many of the St. Louis Ballet dancers.

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Moving along to Leverage Dance Theater…Last year, we saw them in Victoria Marks’, ‘Dancing To Music’ where they wore pedestrian clothes and spent the first half of the piece without moving their feet.Novices to Leverage probably learned that the company is composed of emotive performers that can be funny and endearing with little more than music and their faces. Last year’s piece was moving, organized, simple, but didn’t really showcase the dancing capabilities as much as the theater side of Leverage. Not at all this year.

This year, Leverage worked with Nejla Yatkin in ‘Encounters with the InFinite”.  Not a stone was left unturned in this gloriously over-the-top piece. There was something of divinity to the piece, a timelessness and purity. Watching these dancers was transportive and magical. The playful choreography between the trio and the wonderful surprise moment when Hannah Fischer emerged from underneath a pile of the ‘snow’ felt like a return to childhood, a rebirth of the innocent kid hidden deep within ourselves. The bookend solos from Diana Barrios Whitman finishing with her rising higher and higher as if floating seemed like some sort of transcendence, perhaps into the infinite expansion of time.The solo danced by Tricia Zweier was captivating in an all-encompassing kind of way. There was nothing pedestrian about the movement but nor did it seem designed for spectacle. Perhaps it was the way she mostly stayed within one pool of light directly centerstage, but it felt like a deliberate call to notice the present and the human presence in front of our eyes, spectacularly and simply being.

I’m not exacltly sure what the piece was about, who these dancers were or what they were supposed to represent. I have my ideas but they probably aren’t the same as other interpretations or reactions. That is one of the best things about both this piece and last year’s piece from Leverage. Sometimes to understand is to feel and not to know. How interesting that they manage to accomplish this in both a simple and pedestrian piece and in a dramatic and decorated work. I do know now what great dancers they are and look forward to being moved by their performances again in the future.

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If there is a piece of choreography that I have seen that I have instantly wanted to either see immediately again or dance myself, it was last year’s offering from MADCO choreographed by Gina Patterson. The live blues band, the athletic jazz and swing infused style, the huge personalitites onstage made just watching feel like attending a soul-satisfying party with your oldest, coolest, and most coordinated friends.

And then there was MADCO in 2013 with the commission piece, ‘Lands’ Edge’ originally choreographed by the creators of Pilobolus and reset by Jude Woodcock. The curtain rose to a backdrop of glimmering lights like a starry sky with four couples posed in period dress. It was clear from the opening that they were on an island somewhere with the beachy sounds from the music.The opening movement was simple, with suspended lifts and swirling turns that felt carefree and romantic, like an ideal vacation. In comes trouble, in the form of a soloist new female, supposedly dead, washing ashore amidst this strange community that only grows more and more strange.

It would be easy to call this piece vaguely unsettling at times. It was not a ‘sit back and enjoy’ kind of piece. Rather, it made you hone in close on each small gesture and interaction, to sit up and pay attention. Whether the demand of inspection was more because one was worried about what was going on, in a ,’did they just DO THAT!?’ kind of way or because the piece and the performers were so enthralling, it’s hard to say. The manipulation of soloist Jennifer Reilly by the creepy yet comedic pair of Jason Flodder and Jeffrey Mitchell deserves special mention as the partnering was extremely tricky for all three, masterfully done, and essential to the story. Claire Hilleren was also mesmerizing in her role; perhaps a domineering mother-figure perhaps a strict schoolmarm, it was not quite clear but so commanding in each small gesture. In one moment, I thought she was going to choke Reilly and she instead went to stroke her forehead. Hilleren, and all of the MADCO dancers had us fearfully guessing what would happen next. It was never a question of how great these dancers are or what exquisite performances they would deliver, simply where would they take these extraordinary talents. The conclusion was rather sweet and joyful until that, ‘oh-oh, here we go again’ moment when a new pair of feet washed up amidst the island, just as the curtain dropped.

The inclusion of something new int he mix is bound to change the existing organism as it is, just as demonstrated by MADCO’s fantastic work and as evident through the image of these four incredible companies and even the audience’s perception of them. We can only wait on the edge of our seat for the ‘here we go again’ moment, a new crop of choreographers with our local companies, to see what will happen next year. I for one, am looking forward to it.

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Please joing me next time here on Bodies Never Lie where I’ll be describing this year’s tour- honoring and embarassing the heck out of my fellow dancers. Oh yes, I’ll be telling you the exact karaoke list from the tour bus. Stay tuned, xo- Jess

2 thoughts on “New Dance Horizons Review: Then and Now

  1. Pingback: NDH Tour and Guessing Game | BODIES NEVER LIE

  2. Pingback: Review: MADCO UPRISING | BODIES NEVER LIE

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