'Next,' 'Folksay,' 'War,' 'Drop Down,' 'Han,' 'Nocturne,' 'Monologue' and 'Ties That Bind'
by Carmel Morgan
October 18, 2008 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Terrace Theater, Washington, DC
On October 18, 2008, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, Washington DC’s CityDance Ensemble, in a program titled “Next,” presented an evening of mixed repertoire featuring works by a wide range of choreographers. The choreographers included emerging young choreographers Kate Weare and Austin McCormick, and also socially-minded former Martha Graham Dance Company member Sophie Maslow, who passed away in 2006 at the age of 95.
To open the program, the company performed Maslow’s 1942 American masterpiece “Folksay,” with text by Carl Sandburg and music by Woody Guthrie. Maslow’s “Folksay” hit all the right notes. Her choreographic genius completely eclipsed that of the other choreographers on the program. The next generation of choreographers clearly has their work cut out for them.
Everything about “Folksay,” from the costumes to the live music to the spirited dancing, was thoughtful and fitting, and the audience enjoyed a down home good time. Two musicians, brothers John and Andy Ratliff, provided toe-tapping entertainment. Their folk songs and comedic exchanges – Question: “Howdy, Farmer, have you lived here all your life?” Answer: “Not yet.” – recalled an episode of “Hee Haw.” The dancers, the men in denim and plaid and the women in ruffled print dresses, were utterly charming as well. Their crisply executed movements, often consisting of slapping feet resembling clogging or circle and line patterns reminiscent of square dancing, effectively evoked the emotions of the work’s simple songs and poetry.
“Folksay” is broken into short segments, a great convenience for those with short attention spans. The work never bored. In fact, at every turn “Folksay” demonstrated remarkable depth and humor. In one section, “On Top of Old Smokey,” Delphina Parenti, wearing a fringed shawl, mourned her lost lover. She radiated sadness in her touching solo waltz. In “Aw Nuts,” two men, Jerome Johnson and Maleek Makhail Washington, wittily competed with one another. They alternated jumps in second position, battling to take the one corner, or the “skirt,” they both claimed as their own. In another section, “I Ride an Old Paint,” the dancers trotted like horses and pulled back on invisible reigns like cowboys. The choreography came across as completely fresh, and the dancers looked amazing.
The rest of the program was uneven. Of the remaining pieces, Austin McCormick’s “War” stood out. McCormick is heavily influenced by Baroque dance, and “War” definitely had an air of drama to it, especially because it included a monologue by actor James Denvil, reciting text from “Agamemnon 2.0” by Charles Mee. Four dancers – Parenti, Alicia Ann Canterna, Jason Garcia Ignacio, and Kathryn Pilkington – were soldiers bearing the heavy weight of responsibility for bloodshed. They wore what appeared to be silvery body armor, including shorts and some sort of helmet. The lighting, unfortunately, was so dark that it was difficult to discern the costumes, let alone any subtle movements and expressions. Perhaps the dancers were meant to be ghosts? A mix of Arvo Part music added to the darkness.
What was fascinating about “War” was the incredible closeness of the pairs of duets. They moved together as units, frequently with hands clasped. Siamese twins, their bodies were held together with the magnetic force of their mission, and/or their pain. Staying tightly connected, they snapped from shape to shape in militaristic fashion. Dancers walked atop prone bodies and trudged backward as those on the floor clung to the feet of their partner. The work was both grim and gorgeous.
Kate Weare’s duet, “Drop Down,” featuring Giselle Alvarez and Washington, also dealt with dark themes. The couple wore black and gray. Focused on sexual tension, “Drop Down” deconstructed tango to generate heat and discomfort. The original score, by Katie Down, combined tango music and long stretches of silence with strange sounds that reminded one of zippers, blowing, and a mixer on low speed.
Like in “War,” the partners danced incredibly closely. Their eyes and hands were constantly fixed on one another. A foot would quickly jut out, and then a dancer would spin away, but soon their feet or hands would lock again. Later in the work, Washington, on all fours, hovered menacingly above Alvarez as she was flat on the stage. He grabbed her hand, and their legs flung about, twisting around. With the give and take of feuding lovers, they jumped atop each other with startling force. After a stormy solo, he approached her in what might have been an apology. She then walked into him for an embrace.
Paul Gordon Emerson’s “Han” and Christopher K. Morgan’s “Ties That Bind,” both ensemble pieces, shared similar themes about hope and the constriction of freedom. Yet in these two works, CityDance’s vibrant dancers looked relatively flat. While “Han” showed some fiercely beautiful lifts and leaps, the stirring story telling element of “Folksay” was lost. Likewise, the jazzy, quirky, but strangely robotic “Ties” neglected to satisfy, despite some interesting human puppetry.
Finally, local fan favorite Ignacio danced a solo titled “Nocturne Monologue” choreographed by popular DC dancer Jason Hartley, who now dances with the Trey McIntyre Project. Ignacio has artfully arranged dark hair, which sticks up like a toddler’s and is punctuated by a pale skunk-like streak. He’s as original as his hairstyle, and he’s usually pure fun to watch. His impish smile is contagious. In “Nocturne,” however, he simply failed to ignite. Clad in only a black pair of short shorts, his compact muscular body was shown off to great effect. But the dancing, largely a series of athletic rolls and tumbles, plus a lot of Ignacio on his back bending his legs and pointing his feet in the air, felt too composed. While Ignacio is a powerful performer, Hartley’s choreography proved not to be a compelling vehicle for him. Unfortunately, “Nocturne” somehow restrained this uncharacteristically charismatic dancer.