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University of Maryland Dance Ensemble

"Spectator Sport," "You Go When You Can No Longer Stay," "New Girl" and "How Long Brethren"

by Carmel Morgan

December 3, 2007 -- Millennium Stage, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC

The Maryland Dance Ensemble, resident company of the University of Maryland’s dance department, presented a mixed program on December 3, 2007, at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.  The works were as diverse as  the composition of the company itself.  The talent of the dancers and the strength of the pieces presented varied greatly. 

Most ambitious was “How Long Brethren?”, a reconstruction of a piece that debuted on Broadway in 1937 as part of the WPA Federal Theater and Dance Project. The work, by modern dance pioneer Helen Tamiris, was recreated by  visiting artist Diane McIntyre at the University of Maryland. “How Long Brethren?” demanded that the students explore an emotional range completely unlike other dances on the program.  It is a sober work, connected to the era in which it was made.  Somewhat surprisingly, the young dancers successfully captured the strong message of “How Long.”  Clothed in gray leotards, long skirts and aprons, the company moved in deep knee bends and slow dirge-like steps to songs of unknown Negro laborers in the American South.  From images of picking cotton to hanging from nooses, the dancers moved us with them into a world far removed in time but still close enough in spirit that the dance resonated powerfully. 

In sharp contrast was Joseph Poulson’s “New Girl.”  Poulson’s work didn’t approach a great social statement, but instead seemed a base parody of today’s younger generation.  Unfortunately, the intricate and clever costumes were more interesting than the movement.  The dancers wore an explosion of bold clashing colors and patterns matched by mussed hair.  They looked like feminine versions of the mad hatter with hats replaced by hoodies and pantaloons.  The dancers were sassy and a tad angry.  Between stomps, seemingly pointless running in circles and head tilts, they stood with hands on jutted hips and announced to the audience: “You!”, or “Oh, you!”, or  “You’re still here!”, or simply, “Oh.”  The intended vacuity of the vocal and physical dialogue was perhaps undermined by its simplicity, which brought on less insight and more boredom. 

Monica Bill Barnes’ work, “Spectator Sport,” began with a crowd of dancers in boxing stances.  The music of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, entertainers who at one time dueled against one another for popularity, provided the score.  In work-out wear and taped hands the dancers rocked, dodged and sparred with invisible partners.  Later, in photo perfect poses, they became couples mugging with exhausted, slightly pained smiles.  “Specatator Sport” ended with high kicks and skippity jumps, the dancers’ arms raised in victory before stumbling backwards.  More than a physical challenge, “Spectator” was clearly a theatrical hurdle for the company. 

Joseph Poulson, a guest artist at the University of Maryland for the current semester, performed “You Go When You Can No Longer Stay,” a solo choreographed by Terry Creach, who is on the faculty of Bennington College and who directs New York City-based Creach/Company.  Poulson, clad in white, became a screen for a projected video by Sue Rees. A virtual dancer in white emanated from Poulson’s core, dancing right atop his stomach as he stood still.  The virtual dancer spinning within the live dancer was a bit disorienting. “You Go” was full of visual surprises, primarily coming from the incorporation of video, and yet it was ultimately uninspiring. While the piece strove to understand the nature of missing a partner, it was hard to join in the mourning. 

The Maryland Dance Ensemble’s show did not carry the voltage of a professional show, but it certainly highlighted important features in the University’s development of the professional dancers of tomorrow. The company’s deliberate reflection on the past, present and future of modern dance is laudable.

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