Saturday, March 27, 2010

Collective Motion "been Here before"

As I sat in the audience watching Saturday evening's performance, I wondered - do you learn to choreograph over time by practice or is it an art that is a gift? Collective Motion is a dance company whose mission is to create work as a collaborative with the dancers taking on both the roles of performer and choreographer. Everyone gets the chance to create. This is the kind of contemporary dance that I grew up in, and relished being a part of as a young dancer 30 years ago. I too had the chance to hone my artistic skills in Minnesota and loved every minute of it. But tonight, as I watched these enthusiastic performers I wondered does this type of training hurt contemporary dance or help to promote it? What makes great dance? Is it the complexity and importance of a program that makes it stand out? Or is it the technical virtuosity that defines a great performance? And, what's more important- good dancers or sophisticated choreography?

The Collective Motion company begs these questions.

What this group has going for it is some great dancers, they are top notch. And getting audiences out to watch contemporary dance in Southern Maine is a good thing and the make it entertaining. Being accessible and not too abstract that's a plus as well. So with all this in mind, I applaud what this company is doing. Of the eight dancers, five had the chance to show their choreographic skills. But this is where it gets tricky for me. They are not all that strong in choreographic design. Remember I grew up in and embraced this model of everyone getting to show their work, but not all dancers are good choreographers. I love the idea of many artists creating and not having one master designer. But, when do you decide who has a handle on designing dance that will appeal and propel the vision in a more professional manner.

The evening length work been Here before focused on the many layered ways that power can play out, ranging from personal to political interactions. They were looking at how history repeats itself and can't break free of self destructive patterns. Many of the nine sections used a comical approach to look at these issues. Unfortunately, they relied on overacting and hamming it up, using pantomime to portray their meaning rather then using dance movement to show their ideas. Too literal in content as well as following the music too literally at times to tell the story. Although, three of the dances stood out for conveying a more subtle approach.

"The Arrow of Time" originally choreographed in 2008 by Jennifer Bourgeault and adapted by Heather Baur, successfully used a sound arrangement by Jennifer Letrendre to create an environment of suspense as we watched the dance. Three dancers Heather Baur, Rachel Schwartz, and Nicole Stroumbes, all wearing black dresses began slowly and cautiously, as if looking over their shoulders. Their pace quickened as a marching off to war drum beat was heard. Their movement of horizontal jumps with arms and legs extending outward into flying lunges brought a sense of desperation. The dancers evoked through the use of simple gestures a more human and real feeling then seen in the previous five pieces. A solo, "Eco" danced by Jennifer Bourgeault showed a connection to the floor as earth with sinewy movement that created a dark and sad feeling. Using birdlike gestures, the dancer used her arms like wings where she tested her strength very slowly aware to not be too bold. This well danced peice was co-choreographed by Boureault and Jennifer Letrendre.

The standout piece of the evening was "Swept...(Section 2)" by Josh Robinson for six dancers. Robinson used the lively music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra and wonderful costumes by Douglas B. MacDonald to cast a joyous background for the dance. The dancers moved effortless with fluidity, strength and grace to highlight this companies exceptional technical skills. I loved that it was pure movement without storytelling. The dancers shined as they performed very demanding steps. There were no awkward moments, it was sheer delight.

Collective Motion has only been around for five years. They are a welcome addition to the dance scene in Maine. I hope they'll continue to hone their choreographic skills as they continue and grow.

Collective Motion, at Harry Garland Auditorium, Saco Maine, March 27th 2010

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company

Portland is a trendy small city that prides itself on it's diversity. But the State of Maine still ranks as the number one whitest state in the United States. Saturday night, the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) performed a program that could have been considered a 101 primer on what's important in the world of African American Dance. Right On! DCDC follows in the same vein as Alvin Ailey, Ron K. Brown and the Urban Bush Women, companies who dare to look at black history and say what can we learn from it all.

Slavery, chain gangs, spirituality and devotion were featured in four dances performed by this skilled company. The fourteen dancers were standout beautiful in both how they accomplished the technical moves as well as their interpretation of some very heavy emotional themes. The dancing was strong, precise, and yet layered with fluidity. And there was no overacting which was a welcome relief. It is all too easy to overdo the emotions to make your point, and this company struck the right balance.

Beginning the program was J Lawrence Paint (Harriet Tubman Remix) choreographed by Donald Byrd. The dance began by creating a series of "snapshots" depicting people on the move that were looking over their shoulders. And while 12 of the dancers wore contemporary costumes, a solo figure was dressed in a period outfit of a white headscarf and long dress with apron. Dancer Sheri Sparkle Williams represented abolitionist and underground railroad activist Harriet Tubman. Williams commanded our attention as she stood up and pointed her shaking arm in the direction that lead to freedom. The dance had several sections that depicted the many aspects of slavery life from childs play, work, and lynching.

Looking at religion from two different points of view were Vespers and Children of the Passage. Choreographer Ulysses Dove created Vespers in 1986. The dance featured 6 women in black dresses who were caught up in a maniacal pursuit of prayer and devotion. They sat and prayed, and then moved as if searching in vain to find something. This very somber look at passion was approached with sterility and the chastity was enhanced by the relentless drumming music of Mikel Rouse. And from Co-choreographers Donald McKayle and Ron K. Brown their 1999 Children of the Passage looked at what happens to lost souls who are saved by the "spirits". This dance was raucous with the jazzy steaming sounds of the New Orlreans Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The costumes were a gorgeously strange take on Victorian gala wear designed by Omatayo W. Olaiya. Outstanding as the lead lost soul was G.D. Harris, although every dancer in this company is virtuosic.

The highlight of the evening was Donald McKayle's 1959 Rainbow 'Round My Shoulders. 6 men on a chain gang entered the stage moving in unison steps that wrenched their bare torsos from side to front and down. There was such a heaviness and power to each thrust of their arms as they reached overhead and then crashed down. The men continued to move as one as we realized they are doomed to an never-ending cycle of work. Within the dance several woman appear as muses or dreams taking on the role of mother, wife, and sweetheart. The dance ended with one of the men being shot as he tried to escape from the gang. McKayle's dance is timeless, and it didn't seem dated.

Regional dance companies like DCDC are a joy to watch as they remind us that dance is happening throughout the entire United States. These Dancers in Ohio are just as serious, as peers in bigger metropolitan areas, in presenting quality performances.

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company - Saturday March 20, 2010 at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine