Review: Vivid artistry on display in UAA dance show

Egan Millard

You've probably heard the famous quote that's been attributed, over the decades, to Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Laurie Anderson, Martin Mull, Thelonious Monk and many others: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." If that's true (as I would agree it is), then writing about dance is an even more absurd endeavor -- like sculpting about psychiatry, perhaps. You get the point: Language falters when trying to describe an art form intended to relay truths too intangible for words.

Although this would be a convenient place to end this review, citing futility, that's not where I'm headed. UAA's collective dance exhibition, "New Dances 2014," features performances that transcend the boundaries of artistic mediums and communicate across the spectrum of expression, from the most literal to the most abstract. So, although none of the performances seemed to be about architecture, I have no doubt these dancers could choreograph an elaborate, evocative piece about the ConocoPhillips Building if they so wished.

Although one would have hoped for a more creative title, "New Dances 2014" features a diverse array of pieces that display the artistic finesse and technical skill of performers in the university's Department of Theatre and Dance. The well-balanced program includes tap, contemporary, hip-hop, solo and group pieces. Although dance enthusiasts will probably appreciate the variety, I found that the contemporary group pieces far outstripped the others in terms of creativity. And since they comprise the bulk of the program, they thankfully overshadow the few pieces that border on hokey and syrupy (although, even in those works, the dancers display an infectious amount of energy and dedication).

The show's highlight comes early on, in the second piece: "In Socks," choreographed by local dance phenom Stephanie Wonchala of Pulse Dance Company. Her choreographer's note is the most concise in the program, and gives just enough description of the piece's theme: "On moments of love, fleeting and otherwise." The piece opens with a tableaux of dancers in white briefs, tank tops and socks, which help the dancers slide around the stage. Think Tom Cruise's famous underwear dance scene from "Risky Business." Now add eight more dancers, a fog machine and ominous red lighting. And swap out "Old Time Rock & Roll" for some edgy electronic music. The result is an unsettling and provocative rendering of the dynamics of intimacy. Wonchala expertly carries the themes of the piece through several distinct beats and two songs, and plays with a recurring smoking/breathing motif that suggests the fragility of these "moments of love."

Strong lighting design pervades the whole show, but is especially present in "Recalibrating," choreographed by Brian Jeffery. For that piece, designers Jess Pervier-Brown and Erin Cambell have created a dreamy landscape of light that compliments the ethereal performance and music from Four Tet. The piece's success comes in part from its use of the dancers' entire bodies, especially their faces. Facial expressions can make or break a routine; too often, dancers focus so much on expressing through their limbs that they ignore the single most emotive part of the body. I suspect some of these dancers have undergone acting training as well, because their faces are never blank. Each performer understands not just the moves but the feeling he or she is expressing at any given moment, and that distinguishes an artistic performance from a mere recital.

After intermission, we are treated to Becky Kendall's delightfully weird "DIScourse," which I took to be a deconstruction of a boring meeting. It starts with a conference table tableaux; several dancers in "Beetlejuice"-esque suits and makeup mime rigidly, before a whole other group of dancers emerges from under the table and takes over. If you've ever lost your mind and veered off into fantasy while watching the clock in a conference room, you'll appreciate this one. And those ghoulish costumes and makeup jobs (by Colleen Metzger and Lisa-Marie Castro, whose work on "M. Butterfly" was also excellent) are a sight to see just by themselves.

David Chapa performs in no fewer than four pieces in this show -- including a solo self-choreographed number -- but his most captivating work is as the choreographer and lighting designer of "The Middle Children," the show's largest and most ambitious piece. The manifesto-like choreographer's note made me skeptical at first, but the performance delivered both brash, dramatic energy and barely-noticeable details that gave it a polished feel. At one point, two dancers reach out to join hands but stop just an inch short of meeting -- you'll miss it if you blink, but it's a nice touch, and a fresh way to explore the often hackneyed theme of isolation. Chapa consistently threads that theme through several songs, from Chopin to the indie-pop of M83, resulting in a thoughtfully rendered take on the alienation of modern life.

Although, like any collective show, "New Dances 2014" has its weak moments, there's an impressive amount of fresh creative energy flowing through it. And the artists' competence in all aspects of the production -- choreography, lighting, music, costumes, text, staging -- provides a holistic cross-genre experience for the audience. So, while writing about dance may ultimately be a fool's errand, watching, hearing and feeling it is sure to please.


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