Common Thread Contemporary Dance performs ‘Anonymous’ at the Touhill PAC. Photo: Ahmad AlJuryyed / The Current

 

by Cate Marquis, Editor-in-Chief for The Current

Dance St. Louis opened its 2012-2013 season with four world premieres of new choreography at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus.

“New Dance Horizons,” presented by Dance St. Louis and co-sponsored by PNC Arts Alive, debuted four new dance pieces on Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. in the Anheuser-Busch Hall, with the program repeated on Oct. 6 at 2 and 8 p.m.

All of the new pieces were from nationally renowned choreographers and performed by local dance companies. Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company, Leverage Dance Theater, Saint Louis Ballet and MADCO, the artists-in-residence troupe at UMSL, were the dance companies that preformed the new pieces. The pieces were created by choreographers Victoria Marks from Los Angeles, Jessica Lang from New York City, Gina Patterson from Austin, Texas and Pam Tanowitz, also from New York City.

With a sizable audience in attendance on Friday night, the program opened with Lang’s “Anonymous,” danced by Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company. The program notes described the dance piece only by quoting Virginia Woolf: “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” The dance began with soloist Mariko Kumanomido at center stage and in front, near the audience, while five other women dancers, Pamela Auinbauh, Kristen Banocy, Hannah Benditt, Bailey Fantauzzo and Mary Virtue, stood behind a semi-transparent screen at the back of the bare stage. Dressed in body-hugging black costumes whose various cut-outs revealed a shoulder or midriff, the soloist performed a stretching, twisting dance that suggested a struggle from freedom. After a few minutes, the screen lifted, and the other dancers joined her downstage, engaging increasingly energetic dance moves as the musical pace picked up.The dance moves derived from ballet and modern dance. Leaping, circling and stretching, the dancers sometimes held hands or supported each other, dancing in unison and then apart, symbolizing convergent and divergent feelings between women. A blue-green backdrop suggested harmony as the underlying tone. The dance concluded as it began: with the soloist front and center and the other five behind the then-lowered screen.

The second piece was the most startling of the evening. St. Louis Ballet is well-known to the Touhill audience for their faithful, traditional ballets, but their performance of Tanowitz’ piece “La Tristesse de Saint Louis (A Ballet),” was by far the most innovative of the evening. The piece’s title is the French version of “The St. Louis Blues,” which translates literally as “the sadness of St. Louis.” The program described the dance piece as “a conscious misinterpretation and exploration of the ballet vocabulary. The structure of the dance will be prescribed by the new score. Movement motifs will be mined from classical ballet and filtered through a contemporary lens.”

It proved a remarkably accurate description, but what was surprising was the nature of the “new score,” which sampled early 1920s jazz and blues recordings, using the pops and hisses of the old recordings as a major part of the musical landscape. While score itself ranged from intriguing to irritating, it certainly provided fertile ground for the 12 dancers. The troupe sampled ballet traditions as the music sampled old recordings, with some startling new uses of lifts, leaps and pirouettes. The music did not always appeal, but the dancing was certainly fascinating, and it certainly put this troupe and its reputation for the traditional in a new light.

After intermission, the program resumed with Leverage Dance Theater’s performance of “Dancing to Music,” the piece by Marks. Four dancers in street clothes, Blaize D’Angio, Hannah Elizabeth Fischer, Keli Brook Hermes and Erin Lane, stood side-by-side at the front of the stage. Set to music by Wim Mertens, the dancers’ movements were mainly of the eyes and heads, looking up and right in unison and then down and left together, as if watching an unseen tennis match, or repeating the same movement one after another, as if the ball was passing by in slow-motion. The dance continued as a series of looks up or down, turns left or right and the occasional touching or holding of hands, as if the whole dance took place on some imaginary subway train. In the program notes, the choreographer reveals that the work was developed during a time when she “badly wanted to strip movement down to its most essential elements to better understand how meaning arises from movement” and that she was inspired to wonder “if I could dance to the music with my eyes alone.” The piece admirably explores those two concepts, but it feels more like performance art than dance.

The program closed out with a rollicking piece that brought the crowd to its feet and even a few to the stage for the finale, when the Soulard Blues Band took the stage to provide the music for MADCO. The 11 MADCO dancers performed Patterson’s old New Orleans-inspired “Second Line.” The Soulard Blues Band, at the back of the stage in front of a sunset-like backdrop, spoke briefly to set the Big Easy tone, then launched the classic “St. James Infirmary.” Women dancers in ’20s-influenced loose dresses and men in vested shirtsleeves danced to the band’s energetic version of the traditional blues tune, employing elements of New Orleans’ “second line” marching style, twirling umbrellas while parading, slinking and shimming around the stage. The band changed the tone from the bluesy lament of the opening number to a lively, jiving number to a romantic ballad, as the MADCO dancers switched dance styles from jitterbug to romantic dips to match. The whole piece almost felt like a show in itself, needing only some additional material to be transformed into a full evening’s entertainment.

The show ended with a lively second line march that took the dancers off the stage and down the aisles, where they waved for audience members to join them before all – dancers and audience members alike – returned to the stage for a rousing, foot-tapping finish.