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Dance Theatre Workshop's 'Emerging Artists' Series

by Cecly Placenti

July 15, 2008 - Dance Theatre Workshop, New York City

As summer continues to bake the blacktop of New York City streets, contemporary dance heats up the stage at Dance Theatre Workshop’s Emerging Artists series. Four choreographers shared an evening of eclectic dance forms both kinetically exuberant and technically diverse.

Pow! the all female anime-like contemporary pop group attacking the stage in bright latex and vinyl, were modern dance’s version of the Fly Girls. Strategically placed throughout the evening, Pow! was perfectly coy, girlishly sexual and silly. The group revitalizes vintage pop culture, making dance accessible to any audience. “Pow! And the Bedazzlers” – the company’s signature piece – follows 5 space traveling superheroes in a Japanese videogame setting. “The Gimme Muney Hunnies” is the group’s modern Motown interpretation, celebrating the time in America’s history when music, dance and fashion united flawlessly. Closing the show was “Let’s Get Tangled,” a hip-hop infused rendition of the social dances popular in the 1920’s jazz era. The women of Pow! jive, wiggle, pop and shimmy within highly rhythmic and detailed choreography and move with a freedom that reminds audiences that music and dance are essential parts of everyone’s life.

Also celebratory and full of feminine confidence was Camille Brown’s “Choices.” A solo performed by Tiffany Quinn, “Choices” blended African and modern dance techniques with poly-rhythmic phrases that at times mimicked, and at other times offset, the music. A declaration of individuality and coming of age, Ms. Brown’s choreography surprised with unexpected suspensions, drops and quick changes of weight, showing a girl transitioning into a woman, reflecting as she moves forward.

Ms. Brown’s “Matchstick” also explores change and transition. It is a story of struggle and survival set in the year 1915 – 50 years after the Civil War and 50 years before the Civil Rights Movement. In a small room, 4 young black men selected by their elders begin to become the future leaders of their community. With movements grounded and distal, large and leggy, Ms. Brown captures a very poignant moment in our country’s history – a time of unrest, injustice, hatred and frustration.

The 4 dancers are powerful men who are able to ripple movement outward like a dog shaking off water, then immediately execute difficult technical feats with abandon. “Matchstick” was very reminiscent of Kurt Joos’ “The Green Table” but with the sense that these men were planning escape and freedom, not war. Live accompaniment by jazz musician J. Michael Kinsey gave the piece a historical context and complete setting.

Jacob Kovner and Anna Whaley’s “Adjacent People and Other Problems” was a desolate landscape in which two people attempted to forge their shared space into something of value. By creating images, such as when Ms. Whaley embraced Mr. Kovner and he arched away from her in a posture of pain, and then retreating from those images to find other places in space to try again to connect, the two dancers continue to find themselves in dissatisfying situations.

As the piece progresses, their quest evolves from being about their destination points to being about the spaces between the images. Both dancers move with a surprising softness and ease, almost as if they are exerting no effort at all. Ms. Whaley has a very distinctive style of moving around the long, straight axis of her spine like water circling down a drain. Mr. Kovner has a delicious use of his long fingers to make his gestures grounded and rich.

Pleasantly formal and astoundingly emotional, Sydney Skybetter’s work is an example of the best that dance can be. His movements are lyrical but not saccharine, fluid but not run-on, the pieces playing out like a conversation with friends. “Potemkin Piece” was full of movements that were at once sailing and energetic within a formal structure that draws audiences in. As one dancer begins and then impels the next dancer to join, the piece opened like a children’s’ game of telephone, each dancer passing the movement on and building from solo, to duet, to entire ensemble. Mr. Skybetters use of spatial patterns for the four dancers was interesting and asymmetrical, as when one dancer would periodically stop for a moment and observe the movements of the others from the outskirts.

Bergen Wheeler, a long, sinewy, dazzling dancer, performed an excerpt from “The Personal,” a piece consisting of four solos. Each solo explores notions of passing, folding and falling and involve the dancers executing rigorous and demanding movements in a paradoxically confined space. Ms. Wheeler was like a snake, coiling and snapping back her body, turning on a dime, her weight grounded and secure while her limbs radiated large movements. She appeared weightless as she captivated us with very challenging choreography, a testament to her prowess as a performer.

“Cold House You Kept” is both violent and tender, creating a feeling of unease as it juxtaposes compassion and ferocity. As the number of dancers on stage gradually decreases from seven to one, “Cold House You Kept” points out the agonizing incremental changes that mark the slow extinction of family, self, or community. Once again Mr. Skybetter masters the use of his dancers in space, creating tableaus for seven, then four, then two, as dancers meet and part, moving in and out of each other like leaves blowing along autumn streets.

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