The 8th Annual Spring to Dance Festival presented by Dance st. Louis came to the Touhill Theatre on Memorial Day weekend. With it came dancers from 30 companies around the US and movement, stories, and concept from the farthest reaches of the imagination. There was something for everyone to like and probably something to challenge preconceived notions of dance. While everyone (even writers) are allowed their personal tastes, some works were more succesful in matching innovative choreography with supporting technical elements and concept.
Friday performances in the Lee Theatre were widely varied in subject matter and aesthetics. Tango for All in “Blind” provided humorous moments; the dancers resting as if napping, the man tapping the women as if to say back to work’. While the dancing, rich in partnering and bright musicality, conveyed a cold powering through life, the piece relied on the removal of the black suits and masks, sitting in chairs, and acting to reveal the concept of vulnerability. It was an interesting choice of storytelling that the dancing, the interesting part to watch aesthetically, be the emotionally void point of juxtaposition against stopped-action drama. Considering how often dance and all art is thought of as a method of ‘self-expression’ it is interesting to think instead of movement as the tiring routine. The onstage costume change was an obvious choice and stripped not only the phenomenal dancers but the movement from their full value.
Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company in Jennifer Medina’s “Cognitive Dissonance” created the visual of both individuals and a community in turmoil . Inspired by the events of Ferguson and the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, the movement vocabulary employed motif of gesture and shape, such as the frantically shaking of hands. Here was a piece that created a language and tone with movement; percussive, aggressive, shaken and contracted. A successful piece will allow the audience to watch bodies moving in space and imagine the effort to move as such welling up within their own being. In this, the piece was communicative and powerful but became muddied with too many extras- the words ‘cognition’ and ‘dissonance’ flashing on the backdrop, the dancers angrily yelling ‘agh!’ was a bit frightening in the smaller Lee Theatre. None of these were necessary as the stunning movement itself communicated a powerful collective outcry made more effective but the clean attack of these many powerhouse dancers.
Absolutely nothing distracted from the movement itself in Missouri Contemporary Ballet’s, “Finding Light” by Kameron Saunders. Thought the Lee is not ideal and likely too slippery for pointe work, the dancers were strong and articulate in intricate choreography. Excellent execution of pirouettes into grand rond de jambe, ground work, and diverse movement quality between bouree like skipping stones and frantically windmilling arms lent a fast-paced challenge for the eye to keep up. The piece tackled the idea of searching, being lost, and coming to a place of bliss. The choreography was especially interesting in layered moments of classical technique with a contracted or broken shape, showcasing both the dancers and Saunders ability to waver between the straight and narrow of ballet and the muddiness that is contemporary or creative movement. The dancers seemed to have little relationship with each other or emotional connectivity to the steps which at times made the piece come across as a display of movement for movement sake, which might have been the entire point. I personally am iffy on the experience of thinking ,‘what a cool move! or ‘what a lovely 180 penchee!” beacuas then it seems like a thematic distraction and somehow unnatural for the dancers as if their stage characters were true beings. This piece had a few moments where these dazzlingly executed, fascinating lifts and turns and developpes seemed to pop into the landscape, seeking and wonderfully exploring the far reaches of movement possibility yet leaving their purpose within the piece a little lost.
Thomas/Ortiz dance in “A Undamely A” choreograhd by Ted Thomas and Frances Ortiz like Tango for All, also had a ‘strip the costume’ moment when the five females removed their long white slip-skirts to dance only in the satin corset tops and underlying pantalons. However, the choreography had enough repetition that it was easy to compare the effect of the dance with and without the visual impact of something distinctly feminine such as flowing skirts. The use of tableau and soft movement quality paired with the jaunty and regal shapes somehow called to mind both chamber maids and male courtiers of an Elizabethan period. The piece was beautifully successful in bringing to life an examination of the feminine and masculine in a non-modern era through movement. The elements of baroque music by Vivaldi, nuanced choreography with architectural port de bras and gamboling allegro, and garment lent to a clear picture of theme and allowed for both breezy transportation into fantasy and concrete examination of concept still relevent today. The only distraction was that without the skirts during allegro, it’s pretty obvious when a foot isn’t stretched; not always an issue with modern dance but nothing sends me reeling back to reality faster than a sloppy point.
Continuing in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall, being stripped was again the theme in Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s performance of “Shed” choreographed by Kiesha Lalama. The choreography dealt with the idea of shedding inhibitions, and being free to be oneself. Slow-motion walking in place seems to be a choreographic trend right now, and that was how this one opened. However, It did not stay slow motion or in place for long. Shed became an explosive showcase of the kind of physical prowess and talent- a sweep into a profile perfect unpartnered penchee from a female dancer, a ridiculously high arabesque relevelent beginning from releve from a male soloist- that does not happen without an outpouring of sweat, work, and passion. “Shed’ had all three and the energy was palpable in an infectiously communicative way. There were moments when the technical steps weren’t overly complicated and look like the kind of thing most people with rhythm could accomplish, but even the way these dancers would impose a funky, explosve vibe on a travelling chasse gave a thrilling sense of committment and fun. “Shed” was a perfect example of music and movement’s ability to speak directly to the sense of experience without saying anything specific.
If “Shed” was a joyous song, Neos Dance Theatre in “Eleven Years In’ was a confused mumble. The piece was awkwardly divided into two sections with an abrasive cut between amorphous moody music into something harsher and louder. The two dancers, Holy Handman-Lopez and Bobby Wesner, were excellent in modern movement, partnering, and shared weight that appeared as effortless as if it were improvised, appropriate for the ebb and flow relationship they sought to describe. Pedestrian costumes added an everyday human quality. In fact, everything about it had an everyday human quality. There was no sense of ‘here I am, on stage! ta-da!’ acknowledgment of the audience. The dancers were solely focused on each other. The movement never quite seemed to stop and show, more to continue rolling and flopping onto each other like drunkards (or me stumbling out of bed when the alarm goes off in the morning) It was very successful in representing a clear theme, flawlessly danced, and appearing natural in movement for its cause. Like most overly emotional, needy, stumbling relationships, it went on far too long. To quote the toddler sitting behind me, ‘the boy fell down!’ “the boy fell down again!’ “he fell down again!” The whole piece fell down, an uncomfortable ‘plop!’ like the hand that slams the morning alarm, begging it to be quiet.
Saint Louis Ballet in “Rhapsody in Blue” choreographed by Francis Patrelle showed the technical brilliance of the Saint Louis Ballet dancers.There was nothing innovative about this movement, from the predictable use of musicality in standard lifts, to the lackluster Charleston, to the chenne to a lovely tendu. The piece would be forgivable if it were in fact, a resurrected old Jerome Robbins work as St. Louis Ballet might be given rights to do.. Balanchine was famous for saying ‘there are no new steps, just new combinations’.Some of these old steps were danced especially well; Steven Lawrence had a fantastic diagonal of pirouettes finishing with an effortlessly landed quadruple.The women were absolutely lovely, adding charm and personality to quick pointe work and showing beauty of line and strength (particularly the poor girl forced to hold that la second as the curtain rose). The men came alive in the second movement, once their individual characters came out, but did not seem to embody their characters in the opening. If you are going to tell a corny joke, you should do so with gusto so that the audience can enjoy the enthusiasm if not the content. The same rings true for dance. I think this piece was an attempt pander to what is perceived as ‘the St. Louis dance-going audience’, the elderly and old-fashioned. The piece was non-threatening with the Gershwin score, no men in tights, jazzy ballet and only offensive to people like me who know the St. Louis public to be smart and open-minded, and these dancers to be capable of so much more.
Next was Owen/Cox Dance Group in “Ghost Light”, choreographed by Penny Saunders. The concept behind the work is the superstition that every theater has a ghost, and that certain lights both appease and provide opportunities to perform. The stage picture was dynamic, with glowing orbs hanging low over the dancers, even swinging as the lone female, Rachel Coats, dressed in a sweeping dark ball gown and white gloves danced past, pushing them with menace and play. Intricate lifts with Coats and the three male performers made her seem lighter than a cloud, sometimes more as if they were attempting to stop her floating away. While the movement was ballet based, it was also filled with contemporary detail and held its own language of subtlety lending to the mesmerizing, ethereal feel of the piece.
Changing the mood was ‘Unintended Consequences: A Meditation”‘ choreographed by ‘Brenda Way. From the green glare of the backdrop and the electronic, robotic human voices projecting though the Laurie Anderson score, the piece was both retro and otherworldly. The dancers of ODC/Dance were strong and capable but not in such a way that the dancing distracted from the storytelling. Clever use of choreography provided whimsy and humor set in and around the spoken word of the music; the way the characters interacted with each other to ‘hello mom!’ and ‘leave a message’ made each movement an illustration to a story that was more engaging for the combined factor of text, music, and dance.
Closing the program was Oklahoma City ballet in ”Play” choreographed by Stanton Welch (who choreographed “Falling” on Houston Ballet, one of the best things I’ve ever seen, just FYI). The piece began by removing the wings, the backdrop, the dancers sporadically warming-up as if in rehearsal. Once the dancing got underway, the stage seeming larger was filled with men and women mostly in pedestrian wear, suits, plaid shirts, jeans, travelling back and forth. The movement held gesture in a way that way relatable, like normal people from different walks of life going about their business of drinking coffee, yawning, making phone calls. Yet within these glimpses of normal human behavior were incredible travelling jumps that showcased athleticism with the height of each chasse and beautiful line with each jete. Here the trend of running in place was set on a moving walkway and the dancers were flying. The women brought a grungy sensuality in a movement that combined diverse solo moments of extension, turns, and balance while the men were dapper and stunningly precise in group work petite allegro. There was something visually dirty about this piece, that element of ‘effortless cool’ on top of ballet and jazz technique. The ending seemed a bit abrupt, a curtain falling on the still moving bodies would have given a better sense of closure and final ‘hurrah’ that both the piece and the overall night needed.
If Balanachine is correct, there is no reinventing the wheel where dance steps are concerned. .A strong foundation of technique is always apparent in a dancer but becoming less-so in choreography where the emphasis seems to be centered around a truthful movement vocabulary emerging from within each character, appropriate to each different world and concept. Choreographers today are moving so far beyond the classroom steps that the only way to recognize the high training of the dancers is when strength and flexibility either fail to serve the higher artistic calling of each step’s purpose or so far exceed the simple storytelling nature that the prowess of each dancer shines through. The good news is that the language of dance is being stretched and borrowed and nuanced to serve a multitude of diverse, memorable works. The only bad news is that shows like this, so rich in vocabulary and concept produce equally wordy blog posts.
1. The group male movement in Play- because a group of cool looking guys with nice ballet technique is my idea of heaven
2. The costume for the solo female in Ghost Light- I just know I’m not alone in wanting my everlasting essence to be draped in a fitted dark bodice and luscious full skirt finished with white opera gloves with which my ghost self will forever applaud the seamstress behind such finery.
3. The male solo concluding on the floor with the single light descending closer and closer from Ghost Light- how one person can dance so full-out in one small well-lit corner of the stage is something I will not forget, and will instead shrink even further down and keep in a tiny cell of my also tiny brain
4. The back and forth traveling patterns, ever faster,higher, hair flying the wind of the Oklahoma City Ballet dancers- traffic never looked so good.
5. The trio of women in Missouri Contemporary Ballet, mid-piece and a stunning moment near the end: the sousou -clean, held, strong, with the repeated thrown arm facing the audience- so simple yet so striking
6. Every single dancer of Shed, but especially the tall lady with the turquoise outfit- because her legs went the highest, her jumps went the farthest and fastest, and I could feel every jeweled bead of energy radiating out of her like a peacocks ‘ tail, knowing just how to call attention and reveling in it.
( More to come- this was just Friday. It’s a good thing I don’t sound like THIS terrible writer)
Calvin Wilson’s review in the Post was very good- check it out– but I think he’s under a strict word count limit. Otherwise he would have listed under highlights the costumes he’d like to wear as well, because professional writers do that. (They do!)
Archive for past Spring to Dance reviews/ Previews/ Interviews- wow, that’s a lot of dance. I wonder if anyone, myself included, could pick a top five pieces from over the years.