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.