Sunday, November 22, 2009

UW-Madison Faculty Concert

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Dance Program showcased its annual faculty concert this week, held for the first time in many years in the Wisconsin Union Theatre. While able to accomodate a larger audience, the ambience at the Union pales in comparison to the made-for-dance comfortable H'Doubler Theatre in Lathrop Hall. Poor sightlines (no rake to the main floor seating), broken seats, chipping paint, and a cumbersome tech table placed in the middle of the audience don't create the inviting, tidy and professional atmosphere of the H'Doubler. But bring the lights down and begin the program, and most of the blemishes fade away.

Technically, this concert was huge. Each of the seven multi-media dances necessitated a crucial balance of staging, design, and lighting. Uncredited in the program, lighting designer Claude Heintz sculpted each piece in a meaningful, artful, and in many cases stunningly beautiful way.

The stand-out piece of the evening was not by a UW faculty member, but guest artist Susan Marshall's powerhouse "Name by Name". Striking and curious from the start, a torso emerged from under the main curtain, prone and with head upside down, arms outstretching to the side. Rows of dancers appeared tightening together in a ballet pose and sublty rippling like water in a gentle current. In a solitary spot stage right, soloists carved through a series of firm arm gestures, quickly dropped to the floor, sprung up and repeated. Bodies fell into each other, being supported, rolling and emerging as half torsos from the upstage curtain. All 18 dancers swirled--coming and going, dropping, rolling, turning, lifting, and converging in a single line, rushed toward the audience into a blackout.

Marshall's odd costume choice (designed by Frtiz Masten) abitrarily patched together dancers in multicolored trunks and bras, with others in billowy white outer garments. And David Lang's Phillip Glass-like score began tediously, but did build as the dance progressed.

In "And Everywhere In Between", Kate Corby's choreography created a simple compelling triptych accompanied by live solo violin. In one powerful moment, the dancers slowly progressed left to right in a deep squat, like a flock of exotic ducks, shaking their heads from side to side. Filling the stage, they slowly turned in unison to fix a riveting gaze on the audience.

Other pieces on the program were not as successful. The visuals in Marlene Skog's "Cross Current" were its highlight. Stretches of blue lit fabric pulled at various angles across and up and down the stage space intriguingly framed the upstage grand piano and solo dancer Karen McShane-Hellenbrand. But the dated choreographic movement felt ill-fitted to the dancer who ran awkwardly from one side of the stage to the other, and shifted from one linear pose to another for no apparent reason.

Chris Walker fused modern dance with Afro-Caribbean in "Left at Right", a high-energy romp showcasing student dancer Mary Patterson in a strong clear solo moment. The other three pieces choreographed by Jin-Wen Yu, Li Chaio-Ping and Peggy Choy were simply too busy to be effective. Each featured video projections and other media such as large pieces of fabric, text or live music. And for all three, these choices resulted in a muddy mix with no clear sense of focus, direction or structure.