Battleworks is a dance company whose force and sheer power stand up to their compelling name. Choreographer Robert Battle founded his troupe in 2001, and Thursday night's concert at the Bates Dance Festival was his company's first performance in Maine. The evening included 5 dances that showed a trajectory of Battle's work over the past ten years as well as a world premiere. Battleworks have an unmistakable stylistic imprint that clearly runs throughout all of the dances. This style features a blending of sensual flowing moves and percussive violent gestures and dramatic falls. The audience must decipher whether the lines between soft and hard run in opposition to each other or happily coexist?
Dichotomy was forefront in one of his 1998 earlier works Strange Humors. Dancers George Smallwood and Terrance Popular begin onstage while their bare-chested torsos undulate to a hypnotic drum beat. Their serious and sometimes grimacing expressions and gestures convey a sense of aggressiveness towards each other. But then their extended arms and legs moved in such languid fluidity that one sensed more of a brotherly rivalry. Both friends or enemies?
Battle used many literal gestures throughout each of his dances. Sometimes it works as in his gorgeous and fierce The Hunt and sometimes it distracted as in Ella. Danced to jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald's scat singing, dancer Marlena Wolfe makes goofy faces that although are funny, detract from the amazing kinetic movements she used to embody (through movement) the same unconventional, quirky, and surprising phrasing of the scat song. This is an example of where Battle could have used constraint; the storytelling was laid on too thickly. The Hunt, a quartet where gesture was literal; a hand covering the mouth to be quiet, or a arm reaching and pointing towards the prey worked well. The dancers build the intensity with the help of a striking lighting design by Burke Wilmore and lush full length skirts for the men by Mia McSwain.
The world premiere of Sidewalk featured an original score by Bates Dance Festival musician Carl Landa. Also on the bill was the quirky and classical Overture with music by J.S. Bach. All eight of the Battleworks dancers were incredibly strong, engaging and exciting to watch.
Robert Battle is an accomplished dramatic choreographer. His sweeping grand gestures are reminiscent of Martha Graham. His interest in showing strife and conflict beckon to Jose Limon. While rooted in classical dance his contemporary vision of life being a battle makes for a unique dance presentation.
Thursday July 16, 2009 at the Bates Dance Festival, Schaeffer Theater