Saturday, April 17, 2010

Kanopy Dance Company

In an evening of four dances, Madison's Kanopy Dance Company forged some new territory and unearthed a few Kanopy relics. The company has been around long enough under the direction of Lisa Andrea Thurrell and Robert E. Cleary to establish a repertoire, and it has been their practice to repeat old dances. In a small dance town like Madison, it can be tiresome to see the same dances year after year and many Madison choreographers suffer this fate by placing quantity of concerts presented over quality. But this time in Kanopy's annual Dark Nights concert, which could have been called "Dark Souls", new dancers tackled lead roles in the old works, and the pieces gained some strength with the new blood. That, combined with the intelligent theatrical Monkey see Monkey do created by guest artists Amit Lahav and Natalie Ayton of Britain's Gecko Theatre Company made for and engaging and diverse evening.

The concert likened a dance sandwich--two end pieces with a couple of tasty things in between. A diet might have worked best here by discarding the top slice of bread in order to savor the inner fixings, and get the most out of the delicious bottom slice of bread--the one you need to hold the whole thing together. That top slice, the opening Ikaros, a premiere choreographed by Cleary, felt weak, cliche and undeveloped. Based on the Daedalus/Icarus myth, a familiar and risk-filled story, Cleary took few risks sticking with straight up ballet vocabulary and rushing through the story. High points had little impact or certainty. The elegant Vivian Tomlinson as Daedalus truly brings a lifetime of knowledge to his performance and he came across best when given the chance to go beyond technical dance steps into human movement motivated by emotion. Tomlinson is a lovely contrast to the young, leggy, and energetic Isaac Robertson as Icarus. At the summit of the story, Icarus flies too close to the sun and falls to his death. Cleary diminishes that moment by having Robertson exit after a series of grand leaps and return limply in another dancers arms, already dead. The death happens quickly, offstage, and without any build up and the epic story ends up feeling like unsatisfying filler.

The tastier midsection of the concert restored a feeling of satiation. Thurrell restaged two older pieces, the 1995 group work Black Angels, and her 1997 trio, The Maw. Chock full of serious imagery and subject matter, intense atonal music, and harsh angular lines, these two dances performed back to back bordered on being almost two heavy to handle all at once. Using the Graham vocabulary and sense of high drama, "Black Angels" featured dancer Meg Johnson as the Queen of Babylon. Strong and clear, Johnson took command immediately, tensing her arms and spreading wide in a second position plie. Half spider, half witch, she fell to the floor and arched backwards staring with piercing eyes and her head upside down. But Thurrell has Johnson remain center for so much of the long dance, that by the end, it seems not much has happened. Of course, plenty has happened. Groups of "lost souls" emulating the flying monkeys from Wizard of Oz, flail and fall about the floor, grappling at Johnson's feet and jumping over each other. And two "white angels" mysteriously appear serenely extending their legs and calmly floating across the stage like ghostly nurses attempting to heal the lost souls. When all is done, Johnson is hoisted up center stage in a moment of predictable climax.

The equally dark The Maw which followed, highlighted the wiry strong Juan Carlos Diaz Velez as another dismal soul. Constricted, Diaz Velez rolled out of his metaphorical skin--a flesh colored fabric wrap--and sprung to life in a series of athletic jumps and turns. His piercing eyes and quick shifts gave the illusion that he might really jump out of his own skin. We could watch him with his clear lines and strong focus forever, but he exits, returns wearing a full-length red velvet robe which hides some of his sleek athleticism, and spends most of the rest of the dance center stage like a male version of Johnson's Queen of Babylon. A mature performer, Diaz Velez captures the anguish of this religious-feeling piece and he's joined through the dance by the equally solid Kerry Parker and Elizabeth Simcock. Thurrell's choreography again uses textbook Graham vocabulary and center stage and after a while, this begins to feel tiresome, despite the strong performers. What does evolve is a careful layering of images of a twisted manipulative love triangle with the women fawning over and controlled by Diaz Velez.

Providing the energy and sustenance of a good carbo-load, Lahav and Ayton's Monkey see Monkey do, the concert finale, combines a brilliant balance of humor and emotion with storytelling and raw physicality leading eleven dancers through a series of dreamlike vignettes. More physical theatre than straight-up dance, text about a missing girl and a scientific method for swapping souls lays the groundwork for duet sequences supported by an eerie undulating ensemble. A couple approaches, desperately holding each other. In their simple slow walk, and the tilt of their heads, the curve of their spines, we recognize the couple who seeks the missing girl. They reach and fall and hold each other up, clinging to hope. Another couple, Cleary and Parker, wrenches hearts as they twist and turn in close proximity to each other. The hunched over Parker, the tormented "bad soul", grabs and screams repeatedly, "help me!" and each time Cleary eagerly tries to help, she pushes him down violently. Simultaneously awful and beautiful, this section is almost unbearable to watch. The ensemble functions as a chorus supporting and manipulating the featured dancers and providing a sense of lightness. In a Busby Berkeley-like section, they encircle the missing girl, then break out in slow motion running into a surreal Rockettes-style kick line. The story evolves with strong visual images and although the movement vocabulary is highly detailed, its pedestrian nature is new to the Graham-trained Kanopy dancers. This rawness is a welcome change and the company embraces it with vigor. Lahav and Ayton chose to primarily keep the dancers within inches each other which brings great power to the moments of spatial separation. They also use the width of the space, keeping the viewer actively turning from side to side as if witnessing some strange tennis match.

Departure from the rigid balletic style of Graham along with the strength and versatility of the Kanopy principal dancers, particularly Diaz Velez, made the serious nature of this concert easier to digest. And a with a delicious piece like Monkey see Monkey do, Kanopy charts new and admirable territory in what will hopefully be a continued course.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Pilobolus Dance Theatre

Pilobolus Dance Theater defies categorization. Known for their physical feats and visual treats, they've created their own brand of modern dance. The company, now in its 39th year, visited Madison, Wisconsin last night and in the vast Overture Hall, they presented an athletic, inventive, diverse and sometimes thought-provoking concert of six works.

Upon occasion, Pilobolus dances carry a message. But most often they provide high entertainment value. Their stylistic assortment started off with the rough-and-tumble Redline, made in 2009 in the Pilobolus traditional collaborative spirit---by numerous choreographers. Starting in a stiff straight line, then slowly swinging their heads, then arms, then legs, six dancers progressed downstage. Random hunched over walking patterns evolved into an explosion of hurtling bodies. Dancers sporting red and black wrestling shorts and boxing boots ran at each other at top speed and launched themselves over backwards, airborne, in between athletic break dance riffs.

Hitched (2009), depicted the story of a newly married couple friskily chasing after each other at first, then with linked arms in an undoable knot, exploring every possible way of separating themselves from each other. Crawling in, around and through each others arms in unfeasible contortions, the tiny Eriko Jimbo and lanky Christopher Whitney worked hard to escape their bond and finally did briefly break the link. In this moment of separation, years seemed to pass. The couple slowly and delicately returned to an embrace, and each wrapping one leg around the other, they exited together, alternating their hobbling steps, sharing each others weight.

In Dog-ID, also a newly minted work, a cartoonish shadow puppet display created an Alice-in-Wonderland feel. Dancers Nile Russell and Annika Sheaff moved behind a screen, revealing only their shadows, with Sheaff brilliantly transforming herself into a dog (yes, a dog!) complete with playful paws and wagging tail, and even a tongue that licked the hand that petted her.

The weakest piece on the program, Rushes (2007) suffered from stagnant dark lighting and slow moving surrealist action. Throughout, half a dozen dancers manipulated a dozen chairs, occasionally to great effect. In a Busby Berkeley-inspired moment, they circled with the chairs facing out, gently lifting each one with a wave effect as they passed downstage. Unfortunately, this dance closed the show and the appealing moments were few and far between. When the minimal action was completely halted for a tiny projection of random images on a video screen, even the captivating idea that followed, of movement mimicking the grace of ice skating, could not save it.

A more suitable ending would have been the engaging classic 1971 Walklyndon. In this farcical romp, the full company paraded the stage clad in yellow unitards and blue gym shorts, as if headed to some retro health club for a workout. They manipulated each others paths, bumped chests, ran on each others prone backs, and jumped over and under each other, all without breaking their stride.

By far the most compelling piece on the program occurred early in the evening. The gorgeous ritualistic Gnomen (1997) featured a quartet of sleek and powerful men, each taking turns being manipulated and seamlessly lifted by the others. In one seemingly incomprehensible moment, Whitney balanced on his head, feet pointing to the air, suspended only by a man on either side holding his wrists. Then lifted and carried by the wrists, Whitney maintained his inverted position without flinching, drawing a collective gasp from the audience. Jun Kuribayashi’s turn to be supported, defied physics. Frozen overhead with his body horizontal, he was supported on either end—one dancer at his head, one at his feet. When a third dancer stepped underneath and supported him at the hips, the other two walked away. As if levitating, Kuribayashi effortlessly remained horizontal slowly being pivoted by his lifter. Later, his three supporters guided him gently to the floor. Then arm in arm, they lifted him with their flexed toes and swung their legs side to side, gently rocking Kuribayashi like a baby in a cradle. As the piece ended, quietly the four men acknowledged each other with a simple bow of the head.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Alonzo King LINES Ballet

Alonzo King’s dances don’t depict simple stories. In fact, there was nothing simple about his LINES Ballet performance on Saturday at the Wisconsin Union Theater. King built a rich detailed movement vocabulary brought forth by ten exquisite dancers in the two full-company works presented.

A brief hopeful solo opened the first piece, Signs and Wonders, originally created in 1995. The lone dancer rippled his spine and with swirling gestures moved as if he had no skeleton. Yet as others joined energetically fusing the inventive loose contemporary arm gestures with the rigid torso and legs of classical ballet, the piece moved in no clear direction. Throughout the nine sections, an intriguing style of physical juxtaposition emerged and the dancers took this style with ease. Able to create an awkward tension in their bodies through distorted shapes, they flexed their feet, angled their arms, held parallel leg positions and moved through impossible lifting sequences, all with the fluidity and obvious strong training of classical ballet. But the choreographic lack of repetition and absence of any sense of relationship between or among the dancers in this piece, made it difficult for the eye to latch on to any one thing in particular. Each section seemed a random grouping of miscellaneous energetic dance movement, albeit executed with detail and cleanliness.

When visual relief from the busy frenetic feeling finally came via a liquid duet (the program did not specify who danced this duet), disappointingly the woman moved from one linear pose to another being manipulated and lifted by a male partner who displayed as much conviction as moving a piece of furniture. He literally just stood behind her, walking from place to place, strictly the facilitator of her balletic balances.

To King's credit, the piece did not last too long, and although beautifully danced, the ending brought a feeling of relief. This may have been in part due to the irritatingly high sound system volume which made it uncomfortable to listen to the traditional African music soundtrack.

King redeemed his choreographic reputation in the second piece, Dust and Light. This recent piece, made in 2009, is a collaboration of sorts partnering dance with the intricate angelic Baroque music of Arcangelo Corelli and Francis Poulenc, and the edgy transformative lighting and stage design by Axel Morgenthaler. Together these elements created an inviting and carefully crafted world, both eerie and beautiful at the same time. Again a series of short sections (15 here), King found a way to fuse it all together as dancers repeatedly walked crouched over in a squat en pointe, or one by one slowly dragged themselves across the stage like injured gazelles sometimes folding one leg in at a time into a ball, then hurling themselves splayed out on their stomachs.

The dance evolved with each fall being restored by a seamless lift, an idea skillfully echoed in Morgenthaler's backdrop of a slowly descending black curtain which unnoticeably rises again. In a breathtaking duet section danced by Corey Scott-Gilbert and either Laurel Keen or Caroline Rocher (again, the program was unclear) the two traded lifts, promenading in off-balance poses, manipulating each other by the head then by the shoulders, sliding and shifting like mercury over each others backs. And later in a male pairing of Brett Conway and Scott-Gilbert again, the two oscillated and lifted with a rare combination of grace and power, supporting each other through a fusion of traditional ballet partnering and sinuous grappling. Staying connected like playful Siamese twins, their silver Romanesque-type pleated skirts gave this section a stylish modern gladiator feeling.

In a radiant surprise ending, at last a relationship between all of the dancers became evident. The full company celestially emerged from the wings, rising and falling together like liquid silver in a shocking bright white light. Repeating a pattern of sinuous floorwork, they took angelic departures one by one until a lone dancer rose and spun in attitude into the dark.

If a theatrical structure or theme emerged in this evening, it was that King keeps his duets intimate—dancers in close proximity to each other-- rarely creating any tension across the stage space. By contrast, his trio groupings often appeared as three random dancers whose only relationship was that they shared the same stage space. Throughout Dust and Light, brief trios of disconnect mixed with a series of close-proximity duets punctuated by minimal solos and duets that appeared downstage of the action. Unlike Signs and Wonders, in this inspired dance King's mesmerizing movement invention effectively crafted an exceptional ethereal world.