Dancers click with singers in intriguing program

Mike Dunham
Thomas Phelan performs in Gillmer Duran's "Solos and Arias" at Discovery Theatre.
Steven Melendez presents a visual expression of motion in an ambitious showcase of dancers and singers associated with the Anchorage Opera.

Alaska Dance Theatre's initiative to bring in gifted young dancers from major markets for extended residencies here -- basically laying the groundwork for a full-time professional dance company in Anchorage -- paid off in a big way last month with an impressive new "Othello."

The follow-up, now onstage at the Discovery Theatre, may not be quite as compelling but it is still an ambitious showcase deserving the attention of those curious about where artistic creativity in our city is heading.

For "Solos and Arias" choreographer Gillmer Duran pairs motion and song. Singers associated with Anchorage Opera perform short art songs and operatic hits in a recital format while dancers present a visual expression of the words and music. Some of the pieces are fairly predictable; for instance "Musetta's Waltz," sung by Kate Egan, is coquettishly danced by Sarah Grunwaldt.

More profound dances tend to accompany the more anguished songs, as in "Pieta, Signore," a plea for mercy sung by Steven Dixon and danced by Thomas Phelan. In Mahler's song, "I am Lost to the World," Mina Lawton madly twists through two verses in a straightjacket, her legs free but hands bound behind her back. In the third verse the arms come loose, the unoccupied long sleeves flapping like graceful, liberated banners before the singer, Nancy Caudill, re-ties them and the complacent Lawton curls up in a fetal position.

There is conflict here for the listener used to looking at the singer in a song recital. In some cases the dancer and vocalist interact with one another or the dancer imitates the singer's gestures. In general the singer addresses the dancer as if confiding in his or her secret self. At other times the movement seems to be a distraction from the music. "Vesti la giubba," sung by Benjamin Bongers, is particularly conflicted in a rather delicious way. The music is overwhelming and complete in itself, but when dancer Bennyroyce Royon steps through a frame -- ostensibly of a mirror -- that doesn't look big enough to fit his head, the image arrests all of one's attention.

The "arias" part closes the evening with Schubert's "Ave Maria" sung by Caudill (Janet Carr Campell accompanies the live singing at the piano) with all six dancers on the program. Earlier in the evening, an array of suspended Japanese lanterns for a duet from "Madame Butterfly" proved enchanting. But I was perplexed when the same effect was attempted with empty dresses floating overhead for the Schubert.

The first half of the program, "Celebratory," is a richly rewarding piece set to violin concertos by Bach. Duran makes a nod toward Paul Taylor's "Brandenburgs," focusing on precise pairings, unisons, mirror images and a strong sense of geometry in motion -- which might be one definition of the art of dance. But "Celebratory" is also salted with numerous individual gestures, head and shoulder shakes, that Taylor did not employ.

Several passages for solo violin feature a turn by a solo dancer, the ensemble joining in as the rest of the orchestra surges. This gives a solid feeling of connection between the dance and music, creating a very satisfying whole. The precision of the dancers -- who include Niki Maple, Steven Melendez and Thomas Phelan in addition to those named above -- matches the precision of the recorded ensemble's reading of the score. It is a more traditional, balletic offering than the rarefied song-and-dance portion of the program but highly rewarding.

The company plans to keep pushing the envelope. It has been announced that dance fans can look forward to, among other things, a full-length ballet using the music of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline in the coming year. Also on tap next season, a reprise of Duran's reshaped "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and more contemporary work. There are rumors that "Othello" may also be revisited but nothing certain at this time.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Anchorage Daily News