The past memorial day weekend saw the 9th annual “Spring to Dance Festival’ at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. Over the course of three evenings, 30 companies presented pieces of various genres to the St. Louis audiences. The Festival is an indulgent presentation where dance lovers can not only see and compare the dancers and work from other parts of the country but identify the trends that continually evolve the form of dance, therefore taking part in both the rich traditions and the creativity that breaks from it.
Saturday, May 28th
The Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall showcase began with local company, MADCO in ‘Points of Contact’ choreographed by Ronen Koresh. This is the third time this piece has been seen in St. Louis as it was originally debuted (and reviewed) at the 2015 New Dance Horizons performance. The last time I saw this piece, the dancers had an almost possessed quality, the movement looking like an individual exorcism of something dark rather than a collective ceremony. In this performance, they looked more comfortable with the movement which allowed for greater suspension in balances, more pop in jumps. This viable hunger and longing made for improved solo or trio moments, but also showcased weaknesses and strengths during unison movements. The only tangible differences were the female solo danced by Claire Hilleren, who in 2015 was recovering from an injury and in a boot. The choreography interestingly conveyed the same broken quality even without any real impairment or additional costume element, beginning with a fidgety crawl across the floor. The second was casting changes, and it was wonderful to have local gem Monica Meyr back to the stage after a maternity leave. Even with the diverse music, the piece was cohesive in movement vocabulary and tone. It is fun to revisit the past to see how interpretations and the work itself change.
Second was Thodos Dance Chicago in Artistic Director, Melissa Thodos’, ‘Near Light’. Similar in appearance to Madco, the stage picture was atmospheric and dark with the five men in dark pants with light shirts, the five women in vaguely transparent skirts with dark tight tops. The piece paid tribute to the process of loss and healing, described in the program as ’emotional and sensitive’. Comprised mainly of intricate partnering, the work was visually stunning, architectural in staging and flawlessly danced. Each performer was fluid and strong, the women stretching beautiful legs in high developpes, the men lifting them and one solo male without slip. However, these things tended to happen on predictable moments of the Olafur Arnalds score- a battment on the drum beat, a soft allonge during a sustained note on the strings. When I was in college, my improvisation teacher refused to let the class use music from the soundtrack of ‘Requiem for a Dream’ as inspiration because she said it was too emotion, predicatble, it ‘dictated in the music how and when we should move’. “Near Light’, while still beautiful to watch for the structure and dancing, seemed to suffer this same musical dictatorship.
Third in Saturday’s program was ‘Eleven Years After’ from Joel Hall Dancers. Both costumed and choreographed by James Morrow, the piece comprised of five female dancers in loose dark pants, shirtless tops that looked like they had stiff buttons- like those on a straight jacket- up the middle, barefoot, with swinging ponytails on the top of their heads. Based on the concepts of perfection and perdition, the stage was dark with pools of overhead spotlight. It looked like the performers were deep underground, in a well or sewer. There was something unsettling about the relationships between both the interacting couple during the old timey and effectively creepy ‘Do it again’ piece of music, and the trio of women in increasingly fast gesture, grasping the sides of their heads with the sounds of rain falling. There was an odd conclusion of three dancers executing peppy, basic hip-hop which felt like a falsely happy ending to an otherwise distorted piece. The dancers were very strong in movement that used groundwork and partnering but the musical selection was distracting and chaotic, going from Opera for a Small Room to DJ Kotchy and three other diverse sounds. It was moody and eye-catching, but without unifying factors of movement or music, the overall effect was an oversaturation of ‘new and different’ without satisfying resonance.
Chicago Tap Theatre was next in ‘Moonlight‘, a three section piece with three dancers in black pants and puffy shirts dancing to songs about the moon. The live accompaniment added a theatrical feel, and the luminous moon on the backdrop floating higher from left to right was a lovely technical element and addition to the grand ambience. This piece did nothing to challenge the imagination in concept. However, the nuance found in both jazz and classical music from additional sounds from the tap brought musical favorites such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata into a new realm of musical intricacy. The clarity of sound was impeccable but it bothers me how very different the three tappers were in holding their upper bodies and arms. (It’s highly possible this is my ballet background raising it’s angry bun-head.)
Next was Anomolies (excerpt) from The Dancing Wheels Company, choreographed by Mark Tomasic. The music was intense and pulsing from the opening pas de deux between one female and one wheelchair-bound male. The two dancers held great focus on each other, exploring balances and shared weights. Considering the piece was based on Newton’s Laws of Motion perhaps it was successful in explaining the physics behind balanced, oppositional forces. The choreography introduced new styles of dancing with specific, twitching hand symbols amidst more traditional modern elements. Some dancers were more energetic and clean in their movements, making them more believable and enjoyable to watch. There was one section where dancers helped push the three chair-bound dancers across the stage, back and forth, and two of those dancers let their arms hang loosely as the flew across the stage, reaching out for the hand to help stop or turn them only at the last second. However the third dancer, and unfortunately the one in the front, reached her hand out far too early, spoiling both the sense of excitement and the idea of objects in motion staying in motion. A dancer’s job, no matter what their ability, is to bring to life the concept or emotion behind the work and it was sometimes successful and sometimes not in this piece.
Closing Saturday’s performance was Grand Rapids Ballet in ‘Nae Regrets’, choreographed by Brain Enos. This was the only piece to include use of prop (a suitcase), a colored backdrop (bright red) and elements of height with the raised second level of staging. It was also the only piece that had cohesive music throughout, with modern takes on Scottish songs from Martyn Bennett, as well as clear storytelling or character- the flirty girl, the three drunk guys. Here the choreography used every bit of technical brilliance available with bright allegro, contemporary body contortions especially from the lead male, and thrilling partnering. The costumes were all dark but varied from skirt with crop top to capri pants, long flowing dress for one, and one male in a kilt which allowed for further display of individuality and character. The let-down of this piece was the uneven execution. During the first pas de deux with two shorter dancers, the female was light and beautiful in every fantastic extension of her legs but didn’t seem to have much power behind her jumps making the take-off in lifts look heavy, rather than the wonderful buoyancy that she displayed later in the piece. The solo female with long flowing hair and skirt was fluid and graceful but her performance would have better matched the caliber of the other dancers had she shown greater strength of her legs with a more grounded stance and use of plie. The female soloist with the French twist was shaky on her legs, even in a developpe a la second on flat which spoiled the illusion of freedom. All of the men however, utilized strength to have authority over the movement and therefore, the fantasy of the piece. Overall, it was a fun and plucky sort of piece and would have left a very strong impression had all of the dancers been on a similar level of excellence.
The Festival’s final Anheuser-Busch show began with The Big Muddy Dance Company in ‘Dipthong‘ also choreographed by Artistic Director Brian Enos. The choreography drew on elements of ballet and jazz, a triple pirouette with arms held in a V here, an arabesque or assemble there, but got funky with staccato contracted and isolated shapes. With music by Zap Mama, it was wildly creative in movement and showcased the physical prowess of each of the six dancers. Dancer Christina Sahaida was especially memorable in her solo work which was both dynamic and playful, employing what dance notation inventor Rudolph Von Laban called, ‘Spannungen“, the passage from tension to relase or from release to tension. The piece perfectly captures the essence of a diphthong- the two vowels in a single syllable- with the blend of sharp and sustained movement in this one masterful piece.
Next up was Eisenhower Dance in ‘Between Shadow and Soul’ choreographed by Gina Patterson. Originally commissioned for a collaborative project between choreographer and lighting designer, the piece uses reflection as the main light source (or so it says in the program). There were three large glimmering rectangles placed on the stage, which one can only assume reflected light shining in from the wings but it certainly looked like there was overhead light. In any case, it was a soft light with four women in white short skirts and cropped camisoles, the men also in muted pants and t-shirts. Set to music by Armand Amar, the piece felt both ethereal and powerful. It was the riskiest piece of the Festival, with stunning lifts such as the moment one dancer ran and jumped landing face-to-face with knees to chest on her partner, holding for the briefest of seconds, to then stretch upwards. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of reflection utilized in the choreography, except perhaps an opening section with the four women dancing in unison until all but one fell to the floor. The overall effect was the lightness of the female dancers, falling in a plank towards the floor to be caught just before hitting the ground, as if they could reverse the final pull of gravity.
Third in the show was the ‘Cinderella: Act 2 pas de deux’ performed by guests artists of the Joffrey Ballet. This performance was special in particular because of the history of the choreography which was created by Sir Frederick Ashton and is closely guarded by his estate. Dancers Victoria Jaiani (whom I had the pleasure of interviewing back in 2012) and Temur Suluashvili were precise and perfect in this challenging duet. Jaiani’s warm glow and grace were apparent even in the sharp port de bras into arabesque in a succession of partnered step-over pirouettes, the slow partnered pas de chat facing enface, and repeated slow partnered cabrioles that only those with perfect turn-out should attempt. Also notably difficult was the set of chennes turns done in a tight circle around the Prince, done rhythmically and with perfect position of the feet by Jainia. Because Cinderella is a story we all know, this was probably not the most intellectual offering of the Festival, but one of the clearest and most resonant in emotion and beauty.
Aerial Dance Chicago in ‘Invisible Web’ choreographed by Artistic Director, Karen Fisher Doyle was next. The piece opened with two female dancers, Kristian Brooks and Chloe Jensen, on the floor as a large hoop hung between them. Described as ‘an exploration of the deep bond that two people share in times of great loss’, the dancers moved gracefully on and off the hoop, in, around, over; sometimes dangling one-handed from the bottom for a succession of attitude turns, sometimes hanging upside down back to back with only one bent leg holding fast to the hoop as it spins mercilessly fast. Set to music by Yann Tiersen, the mood was mesmerizing; as impressive to the mind (how are they even pulling themselves into these positions, let alone doing it gracefully) as it was able in its’ evolving beauty to bypass the critical mind. ‘Invisible Web’ was incredibly communicative, especially considering it was devoid of gesture, using only the architecture of shape and the balance between the constant motion of the hoop and either stillness or evolution of the body from one position to the next. Though the two dancers employed beautiful use of classical line and flexibility associated with quality dancers, the use of aerials showed a new capacity for both movement and expression that would reform even the harshest critics of nonconformist types of dance.
Amidst a slew of pieces with ethereal, body-baring costumes and filtered lighting came Dayton Contemporary Dance Company in an excerpt of ‘HeartShakes’ by choreographer Keisha Lalama. This excerpt, titled, ‘Mending Hearts’ featured one male one female dancer clothed in pedestrian dress- pants with dark red button-up for the male and bright red sleeveless day dress for the woman- perched atop wooden stools against a crimson red backdrop. Using bluesy music from Alabama Shakes, the dancers walk over, leap from, and stay close to their separate perspective stools and sides of the stage for the opening movement. As the music changes, the backdrop fades to blue and the two begin to interact with lifts and recognizable waltz done centerstage. The piece was an examination of relationships and emotional phases in the most clearly human offering of the showcase. Both dancers, Alexis Britford and Devin Baker, used exceptional technique and physicality to express clear emotions of frustration, impatience, and tenderness. It was the most empirical piece of the evening, the movement of behavior serving the picture of human experiences. The correlation between intention was perfectly in tune with the motor experience. The choreography beautifully represented these relatable emotions, utilizing the tensions felt in times of heartache or anger and revealing them through contemporary music and fabulously danced contemporary movement.
Closing both Sunday’s show and the Festival was Ballet Memphis in Stephen McMahon’s ‘I Am’. The piece tackles the idea of identity, and seeing ourselves and best selves through our interactions with others. Lighting by Helena Kuukka provided an almost galactic sense, as if they floated in the galaxy without concrete imagery to ground to any part of earth. Six dancers were clothed in various shapes of white, different sleeve lengths for the men, different skirt lengths and details for the three women. The choreography was abstract in the sense that there was no sense of mimicry, but served each individual dancer as a unique body language specific to them. This creativity was not a lack of form but rather an exploration of self-expression different from exhibitionism. In it, there was still precision, speed, line but something full of personality in the phsyicalization. The way the dancers used their bodies and gifts seemed deliberate, one female lifting her upstage leg devant while gazing at her foot with so much incredible turn out that her entire heel was visible seemed like introspection rather than decoration. One man in solo repeated a graceful job forward and back, a petit solo female skipped merrily and forcefully across the space, reaching her arm out alternating between palm up and down, pausing on different accents of the music. These solos were largely enjoyable, not only for the exceptional execution from the respective dancers but for their contrast and utter difference in movement and even appearance of the dancers. It seemed each had their own way of travelling through space, a body language that served like personality ticks. Personally, I sometimes like to recast myself or other dancers in roles while watching a piece, asking, ‘who do I know who could also be that girl’ or ‘which one am I’? In this piece, I couldn’t answer the latter question. Each dancer seemed irreplaceable and unique in their specific role in a way that it would be inauthentic imitation, albeit fun, to try to take on their movement.I have a feeling this is part of the work’s intention and if so, it is incredibly successful. Aristotle once wrote, ‘In any art, the more artistic the work is, the more form is there, i.e., the more measurable, definable, calculable, it is- the more rational or intellectual. Yet on the other hand, everybody since the world began has associated with art strength of feeling and unconsciousness of effort”. The value of this piece lies somewhere between the two poles, admirable and considerable in craft and somehow brought into independent being by the interaction of both mind and medium.
*On a side note, I did attempt the solo female’s amazing tri-pod balance between the balls of her feet and her head with arms contorted backwards and I can do it if a pillow is present. It really hurts on a hardwood floor. The arabesque turn into a tilt, flexing the foot, and returning to a point, I’ll leave for her to do.
Part of the function of tradition is to cause those rich conflicts and tensions that inspire those who want something different. This year’s Spring to Dance Festival showed the many ways that dance stays true to it’s beautiful traditions of form, costume, story, and staging or struggling against and breaking those chains with inventive use of music, movement, and motif. The 2016 presentation showed such new, beautiful, and exciting work that the clearest tradition is the event itself. How it, like dance, will evolve from here is anyone’s guess.
*All photos taken from the Dance St. Louis facebook page
Past S2D Reviews:
2011- my review for the St. Louis Front Page
*Since I will be ‘evolving’ myself into a grad student next summer, this is likely to be the last s2D review for two years. I will be putting up a top ten from 6 years of reviewing later this week. One of the pieces from this past weekend is vying for the top spot and three of these companies are on the list. Can you guess who?