The annual Dance St. Louis New Dance Horizons series local brings together companies with internationally renowned choreographers. The fourth presentation, held at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on February 23rd and 24th, celebrated Black History month with works inspired by Saint Louis African-Americans and created by major African-American choreographers. Companies representing Saint Louis were MADCO, The Big Muddy Dance Company, and the newly created Dance St. Louis Dance Ensemble.
MADCO opened the show with ‘Line Up Low Down’ choreographed by Bebe Miller and set to the music of Miles Davis. UMSL Director of Percussion Studies and Associate Professor of Music Matthew Henry arranged and directed the live performance of a varied selection of Davis’ compositions. Where the St. Louis connection comes in is unclear considering that Davis was born in Illinois. His music however, was seemingly the inspiration behind the choreography. Therein lies the problem.
With two compositions off the Gold album, ‘Bitches Brew’ the music and therefore also the choreography meandered around in a manner that felt more like improvisation that was inaccessible to the audience. These pieces came from Davis’ experimental phase of jazz that borrowed elements from rock inspired by the psychedelic stylings of Jimi Hendrix. The simple tank tops and t-shirts, leggings and loose pants in solid bright blues, greens, purples, and reds evoked the colorful feel of this period of time while appearing pedestrian and showcasing the physique of the dancers. The middle piece of music was from what is commonly referred to as the greatest jazz album of all time, ‘Kind of Blue’. During this all-male section, the music which would have been more accessible to a wider audience due to the greater use of both melody and harmony, was awkwardly paused for moments of silence before starting again. Most disappointing was how these versatile dancers repeated the same phrases with only slight variations over and over again. The best part of the piece was the small moment of unison with the men before falling to the ground, as a wall of female dancers walked in to great dramatic effect. There was indeed some beautiful dancing taking place, but it was very hard to focus on one dancer long enough to appreciate the intricacy and subtlety of the movement since almost nothing was done in unison, or in clear groupings. The piece was masterfully done and of high artistic quality but it wasn’t fun or moving to watch. It might be a question of simply not understanding and or liking that phase of jazz or it might be a question of not enjoying it as a partner for dance (or not doing enough drugs pre-show). Both music and stage picture were amorphous and tonal in a way that was chaotic for the eye and uncommunicative in mood, message, and resulting enjoyment.
Next was The Big Muddy Dance Company in choreographer Robert Moses’, “Gunshots/Daffodils/Moans/Still’. The music for this piece was also constructed by the choreographer, including samples from Reverend Cleophus Robinson, Dick Gregory, Henry Townsend, Albert King, Roosevelt Sykes, and Walter Davis. As the curtain opened, the sounds of children either screaming or laughing masterfully mixed with the St. Louis Reverend’s voice revealing two luminous pillars next to the full cast of dancers. There was an immediate urban impact, heightened by form-fitting costumes of mostly muted gray, black, and white tones with blue accent tones.
The dancers were strong and percussive in grounded contemporary movement that managed to include an element of storytelling without relying on pantomime. The choreography was a great blend of aggressive, expansive dance movement mixed with slowed or still stage picture that allowed the audience to relate to subject matter. There was a beautiful contrasting moment when the company of dancers formed a circle and lifted dancer Thom Dancy as if he were a revered figure, hero, face of a revolution. Later in the piece they came again, this time with arms throwing and his head being continuously tossed back as he was again lifted, this time the villan or criminal. Fantastic partnering came from Dancy and Christina Sahaida as well as dancers Geoffrey Alexander and Dustin Crumbaugh. It is rare to see a duet of male dancers in a way that isn’t a competition of showmanship and tricks and this was neither. Another fantastic solo came from one female near the end of the piece, incorporating rigorous groundwork, contorted and shaken arm positions, flexed feet. Gone are the days when women on stage have to be light and ethereal to be beautiful. Across the board the dancers looked very strong in a huge expanse of movement that requires great strength, alignment, flexibility, and trust. It was this last category where they looked just a little unsure. This company is so well-known for strong, committed performances that hold nothing back and here they looked just one percent timid in some of the unison moments. It seemed like they were trying to stay together instead of everyone just knowing and owning the movement in a few group moments.
In a Q&A post show, the choreographer admitted to being inspired by the Ferguson events that struck the St. .Louis community. This inspiration was apparent and successful with every pop of bubble wrap bursting under the step of each dancer. There was anticipation as each dancer stepped up to the mound of bubble wrap in silence, waiting for that inevitable pop!, each explosion felt by both dancer and audience. Moses’ construction was an undeniable masterpiece, as relevant to ugly events as it was beautiful on stage. It seems a daunting challenge to address social issues and effect change through art. Here was a piece that did just that. The Big Muddy Dance Company is banishing stereotypes of what men or women must separately do, proving instead what a collection of humans on an equal playing field of movement, strength, and expression can collaboratively do.
Closing the show was the Dance Saint Louis Dance Ensemble in ‘When We Come To It’, choreographed by Dianne McIntyre. The piece featured three recently retired Ailey dancers, Alicia Graf Mack, Kirven Douthit-Boyd, and St. Louis native, Antonio Douthit-Boyd along with ten other carefully selected dancers. Set music from the great Lester Bowie and text from poet and author Maya Angelou, the piece showcased not only beautiful performances of dance and spoken-word but also McIntyre’s brilliance for the art of choreography and composition. The use of the title line, ‘When we come to it’ was used like the chorus of a song or a call to attention, each dancer standing tall directly facing the audience in a strong open second, arms behind the back. It was a moment of simplicity and honesty in an otherwise non-stop piece. The three lead dancers, costumed in white, provided stunning moments of dancing- the en dehors promenade from Graf, the double attitude turn into a stag from Kirven Douthit-Boyd, the double en dedans pique into expansive developpe devant from Antonio Douthit-Boyd. It cannot be an easy feat to dance next to these three titans of the dance world and the additional corps, costumed in muted grays, held up to the challenge. These dancers were unanimous in technical proficiency, focus, and feel. It was a spiritual experience watching dancers give so much of themselves. McIntyre seemed to use the text as inspiration for feelings of command or vulnerability rather than a direct translation of words to movement. This allowed for another layer of experience, intelligence, and emotion to shine through. The piece ended with a huge explosion of bright music and the dancers moving in unison. It seemed like an optimistic view that once we as a race, face head on the issues that keep us divided, joy and unity will abound.
It was a wonderful thing for Dance St. Louis to unite the New Dance Horizons series with a theme that allowed the audience to experience diverse art and diverse perspectives. Perhaps the most diverse aspect of each piece was the use of sound- when to use silence, when music is live, when to include powerful words, and which best heightens movement and idea. Each piece held both artistic and cultural value, reminding audiences of the great achievement of humans from the past, present, and struggles that have and continue to plague our society.
- Brandon Fink’s beautiful solo work in Line Up Low Down
- Marcus Johnson’s amazing vertical stag jump facing upstage- he might have done it 5 times but it was very impressive each time
- The two girls-one tall one short- in the purple pants that begin the final movement of ‘Line Up Low Down’ with the sideways head bobble- I’m sure they weren’t supposed to remind me of Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan from SNL, but they looked just like this:
- Geoffrey Alexander- everything he does, but especially his final solo work
- The popping bubble wrap with jerking contorting dancer on the opposite side of the stage as the curtain closed on Gunshots/Daffodils/Moans/Still -I will never look at bubble wrap the same way again and am adding this incredible piece to this list of the best things I’ve ever seen
- The reveal moment when we first saw the beautiful speaker elevated on the platform
What did you think? I invite dialogue, disagreement, profound thoughts, and all insights. (All you Webster University Modern class students who were required to write reviews, this means you!)