Monday, June 15, 2009

Dancing at 100

Last week Dancing at 100 grandly celebrated a century of the presence of dance training on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. The four-day festivities included an historical photo exhibit, lectures, dance video screenings, concert performances and a traveling site-specific work.

Several concert performances featured a blend of faculty and alumni choreography and dancers presenting the overwhelming aesthetic of strong technical dance training. There were no tricks here, only pure and beautiful dance. The choreography never hid behind gymnastics or gimmicks and very few dances in the three studio concerts used any sort of props or text. Most resonant were those pieces with a narrative thread.

Ann Arbor Dance Works, the local faculty dance collective, presented a strong evening of works ranging from a sensual intricate ménage a trios choreographed by Amy Chavasse, to a simple compelling love story duet created by Bill DeYoung.

DeYoung’s piece, At Last Departs, made in 1975 highlighted the superb chemistry of dancers Amy Cova and Thayer Jonutz arm in arm supporting each other in a relationship of soft leg extensions, reaching and grabbing at each other in momentary desire to escape, and finally facing each other, arms extended, falling into a release that erased any tension that came before.

In Bitter Poison from Handel Arias (2007) choreographer Peter Sparling took dancer Jonutz through the aging process. Clad in plastic Elvis wig and a black suit jacket lined in shimmery fuscia, Jonutz emotionally contorted face and body first shedding his hair, then his jacket, then his life.

Less successful was Sandra Torijano’s Solo from the Last Full Moon. This excerpted sample from an evening-length work perhaps suffered from its editing. In the context of so many other clearly formed dances, this one had no rhyme or reason, and seemed just a run-on sentence of simple movement performed for some strange reason on and around a black plastic stepping stool.

The first Alumni Concert of the weekend featured an impressive range of solo works from Martha Graham to Yvonne Rainer to Robert Battle. Michigan-trained dancers definitely have the chops to pull off these challenging pieces, with Lisa Catrett-Belrose confidently opening the show dancing the Graham solo Satyric Festival Song (1932). The sprite-ish Catrett-Belrose played, jumped and rolled in her tight horizontal-striped dress. Flailing black hair, angular arms and sly looks evoked the spirit of young Graham.

Chair/Pillow, choreographed by Rainer in 1969 and performed by Patricia Beaman brought welcome humor to the otherwise serious-toned concert. In a brilliant repeated pattern, Beaman, clad in renaissance curls and corset, brought meaning to the simple manipulation of a bed pillow—sitting on it, kneeling on it, pulling it from behind her back—while Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep, Mountain High accompanied.

Rachel McKinstry, a Brooklyn-based improv dancer, found an innovative mix of technical dance with pedestrian movement. And dancer Michael Spencer Phillips performed Damn (1999) created by Battle. This percussive, precise, military-feeling dance started slow and steady, then grew in detail and intensity until Phillips collapsed on the floor with a cry.

A few of the works were less clear. Susannah Windell locomoted in varied circles while tossing rose petals on the floor for no apparent reason. And Angela Gallo performing her own choreography, only concerned herself with avoiding tripping on her long pant legs.

Two highlights emerged from the second Alumni Concert. The first, Deep Song (1937) also a Graham piece, compellingly performed by Christine Dakin. The second, Gay Delanghe’s delicious trio for three leggy women entitled Venice, Milan, Florneza (2000).

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