Last weekend saw the third presentation of Dance St. Louis’, ‘New Dance Horizons’ at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. The show pairs local dance companies with internationally renowned choreographers for, in this case, world premiers of cutting-edge original pieces. Representing the local dance scene were MADCO (Modern American Dance Company), St. Louis Ballet, and new addition to the festival, jazz-based The Big Muddy Dance Company. Each presented a different style of dance technique within an exceptional representation of the collective professional dance scene today.
Opening the show was MADCO in choreographer Roni Koresh’s, ‘Points of Contact’. The piece opened with the dancers in a circle, facing each other, a male dancing alone in the middle in an aggressive, syncopated solo. It felt like the dancers were showing off for and challenging each other. The movement was muscular, even beating on their own bodies, making contact with the floor and fellow dancers. There are many different ways of making contact- a touch, a bump, a push, even an internal kind of emotional or mental contact- and this piece illuminated many of them. The blaring lights shining into the audience from designer Peter Jakubowski and Burke Brown felt like stadium lights, that of a boxing ring, or stoplights in som emovements, contrasted by soft blue lighting or a single spotlight for a female dancers’ almost pedestrian solo. There was a mix of interaction with each other but also moments of simple presentation, the section with the four men, or the three females, where it was very clear where the audience was and for whom they were dancing. It seemed as if the opening circle gathered the tribe to then challenge us. The piece seemed to have a lot of themes and ideas; confrontation, showmanship, physicality, even romance, and it didn’t seem to always have a strong connecting thread. A small bit of text before the three women danced included the line, ‘as different as a box of chocolates’ and each segment of this work seemed to compliment this idea. They can be different in tone, in movement vocabulary and still go together somehow without a necessary order from start to finish. The only disconnect came from the costume- drab, light blue collared, sleeveless shirts- baggy and lightweight, with black knee-length dance leggings. It was a mix of industrial, and sad, dancewear and construction worker, form-fitting on the bottom, loose on the top, and it was unclear if it was supposed to emphasize the humanity or the dancer in the performers or neutralize gender. It didn’t add much to a piece that was otherwise explosive, adrenaline-charged, and highly concious of the physical.
Second was The Big Muddy Dance Company in choreographer Kate Skarpetowska’s, ‘A Mariner’, commissioned by the St. Louis College of Pharmacy and inspired by the Oliver Sack’s novel, ‘Awakenings’. (An interview with Kate) The piece differed from MADCO’s in the clear progression of the work. Starting with a soloist male in rigid contorted form against a corps of dancers in isometric jabs and twitches of the arms and heads, as if to emphasize a limited unpleasant mobility against that of total stillness. Again the costumes were a drab bluish color, a long gown for the women, a shirt and pants for the men, but the underside of the women’s dresses were a bright red, as if to say there was more inside than easily meets the eye.
The piece felt more like a progression inward, through time. Watching the gear-like movement of a group, faces hidden, seemed to strip them of individuality and turned them into failed machines, emphasizing the frailness of the human body. As the piece continued, the dancers moved with more and more freedom, a solo male dancing freely around a group of still bodies, a female partnered, lifted, pulled and caught by others. The piece concluded with a long solo from Thom Dancy, executed with a mix of expansive lightness and grace to falling to the floor in contorted positions. He began by facing more often away from the audience, with slightly rounded shoulders gathering momentum and moving faster until mid-way through, falling to watch upstage as a group of females danced in soft pink light. The piece overall seemed like a view of transformation of these people, from the almost comical ugliness of age or sickness to a better, stronger, free self only achievable through slipping into a dream or a memory. It was as if we, the audience, see what they see- a longing for health, beauty, youth that will inevitably escape us all. It is no easy feat to choreograph something impersonal and still make it personable, harder still to create a feeling of the human condition, of a lifetime in the span of fifteen minutes and Skarpetwoska and Big Muddy beautifully accomplished this task.
Closing the program was ‘Bloom‘ from choreographer Brian Enos on the St. Louis Ballet Company. Blue-green lights came up on a solo male in front of the curtain to the sound of chimes. The curtain rose to another male standing in the back, the first male running quickly offstage. At first, the piece was dominated by the male dancers of St. Louis Ballet, in what seemed like slightly mechanical movement, utilizing both speed across the floor and moments of stillness lying down. They wore dark pants and what looked like blue button-down shirts, giving them a corporate businessman appearance. This was contrasted by the corps of women in short dance dresses, one with red underneath. Where the men were strong, sharp, and grounded the women were light and quick in pointwork. They seemed to never put their feet fully on the ground, rather hovering and fluttering as a group, until executing a tendu derriere in canon with suspended rond de jambe to tendu avant, each leg perfect down to the winged foot. Then they too, took off running.
Eventually the soloist female with the red skirt, Tiffany Mori, came out lifted by a series of male partners, never letting her touch the ground. As the piece progressed, the rest of the women were also partnered off by men, catching them as they turned and fell, dragging them away until only the soloist couple remained to dance a final pas de deux, slowing in speed, ending with both dancers on the ground. What this has to do with the concept of blooming, when it seemed more like the final two withered away is unclear. Also unclear was the relationship between the sometimes separate groups of men and women, and why there was only one man and one woman with the bits of red in their costume. What was successful in this piece was the establishment of fantasy, from opening the curtain and drawing us in to an otherworldy experience of exotic music and a place apart from our own gravitational rules. There were moments early on when the men weren’t exactly together, particularly getting up from a kneeling position. The choreography utilized all of the classical ballet training the dancers had to offer as well as adding contemporary touches, sometimes with more or less success. In one sequence for the women- an assemble landed in contraction right up to soutenu to fall into a partners arms– a few of the contracted landings looked like unfamiliar territory. Some women didn’t quite give the full spine to the contraction, instead holding the neck and keeping the back flat, and didn’t quite achieve the ripple effect from the curved position onto point while turning for one moment of suspension before falling that a few did. It was quite stunning when executed with the fullness of weight and feeling of abandon (which really means complete control of the core) but not all of the women seem equally comfortable with modern influences. The partnering skills of the men must be mentioned even if the piece seemed to showcase more the dazzling brilliance of the females of St. Louis Ballet.
The concert shows just where the range of choreography is these days, veering away from the narrative and becoming more explorative in terms of style and influence. All three pieces showed much more than basic modern, ballet, or jazz technique but gave movement that would be impossible to execute without an understanding of the body that usually comes from studying technique. There seems to be less ‘pretty’ and less commercial flash, as seen particularly in technical elements such as the muted tones of the costumes. The design of stage formations, or intricacy and intensity within movement seems to be the focus where other areas of design are pared down. it seems that last year was a ‘fancier’ year, where two pieces had raining feathers or ‘snow’, another a backdrop of golden lights, and costumes ranging from heavy floral patterned dresses to stilts and feathered gloves. This year focused much more on only movement to communicate diverse ideas. Dance is giving us a wide range of topics- from the natural world, to a scientific manmade fantasy, and so too, must the dancers range of movement increase. This only makes for better dancers, more versatile.The line defining the ballet dancer, the jazz or modern dancer, is becoming more and more blurred as each takes on the demands of other disciplines. Choreography seems to be reaching away from codified steps and vocabulary. becoming more undefinable, a mirage of colors that borrow from and blend into one another, which is just what the dance scene of st Louis is doing, for the better of all of them.
Highlights and favorite moments from the show include:
- The one-handed side plank/push-up from Sam Mitchell in MADCO
- Group work from MADCO dancers- particuarly the trio of three newcomers Marcus Johnson, Darrell Hyche, and Rafael Tillery during the second movement, whose bodies look nothing alike but matched so well in musicality and energy
- Claire Hilleren’s floor-bound solo in ‘Points of Contact’ while wearing a heavy black boot on an inured foot or ankle. She managed to command the stage without ever having to get up.
- Geoffrey Alexander’s solo work amidst the still dancers of Big Muddy in ‘A Mariner’ was a perfect contrast of fluidity against rigidity and was one of the clearest thematic moments of the choreography
- Thom Dancy‘s solo work in ‘A Mariner’ whose embodiment of the ebb and fow of the music made it seem that he himself was moved by it and not simply dancing to it.
- Tiffany Mori as the lead soloist in ‘Bloom’ who maintained both techincal perfection of position as well as graceful presence even while being passed from one partner to the next
- The circle of partnered jetes between lead couple Mori and Michael McGonegal, each equal in travel and inhumanely bouyant- impossible to do without a partner but very hard to do with a partner.
Overall, New Dance Horizons 3 and Brain Enos’ ‘Bloom’ has done the best job of showcasing the beauty and innovation possible in ballet and the St. Louis Ballet dancers. While MADCO has shown great work in diverse, fun, and intriguing pieces in the previous two years, Koresh’s ,’Points of Contact’ has shown the pure physicality and athleticism that audiences love from MADCO. The Big Muddy Dance Company will have a tough job following up this years presentation of Skarpetowska’s, ‘A Mariner’, but they are very likely up to the task. If this is the horizon of dance, then thanks to Dance St. Louis and particuarly Artistic Director Michael Uthoff, the future for the dancers, directors, and audience is quite bright, even if the costumes are not.