Clockwise from top left, dancers Jessica Mullette, Ashley Griffith, Laurel Wall-MacLane, Anya Cloud and Kitty Sailer perform in Body Parts.
It would be fantastic to be able to tell you what to expect from Body Parts, except that even those performing in the upcoming modern dance concert aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen. The show’s director, choreographers and dancers promise it will be different, challenging and experimental. They talk about collaboration, risk and innovation. But particular details? The finished product? Let’s just say this isn’t your sister’s ballet recital.
Of the six pieces included in the concert, four contain some element that will change from performance to performance. Call it improvisation or a blatant disregard for conventional structure. Either way, it creates the opportunity for some wildly imaginative and bold movement—at least based on what transpired during one recent run-through.
For example, the closing 20-minute piece, “The Epic,” features six live musicians playing jazz to the motion of seven dancers interspersed through six distinct parts, four of which are entirely improvised. Another piece, “Experimental Solo Project,” includes three dancers performing individually choreographed solos at the same time—each oblivious to the others’ actions—to music that will change for every showing. And two other pieces involve chance outside the dance. In “One,” an artist begins dancing with a quartet before separating and creating a painting at the back of the stage, in essence becoming a soloist performing with her brush. “This Is a Body Part” puts local musician Ryan Bundy in the role of light operator, commanding a spotlight for a solo by Kitty Sailer. Bundy’s role is completely spontaneous and he’s encouraged to be, well, specific. In other words, he can narrow the focus of the light on any body part he wants rather than simply illuminating the dancer.
Body Parts’ one common thread is collaboration. Artistic director Jessica Mullette, a recent University of Montana dance graduate who’s working in conjunction with local theater outfit When in Rome Productions to stage the concert, invited members of the local dance community to create something with somebody, emphasizing the partnership in unusual or extreme ways. The directive is evident in the use of visual artists and live musicians, but it’s also manifest in the two more structured pieces. An electronic mix of Bundy’s acoustic music and a separate mash-up by local composter Zachary Thorup accompany “The Rubble Shovel,” a witty and gorgeous sextet choreographed by Sailer. “Edgling” is a solo for Mullette that expands on an older group piece created by UM professor Michelle Antonioli; Mullette and Antonioli worked on the sequel together.
But the concept behind the concert isn’t what will resonate most with audiences—it’s the dancers. While the compositions as a whole run the risk of getting lost in their own ideas, there are still pockets of graceful partnering, torrents of athletic lifts that defy balance, and a general poise from the troupe to pull it off. Their collective presence and confidence help to ground the pieces. And since the dancers themselves aren’t necessarily sure when these perfect-storm moments are going to appear, their sense of discovery is hard to miss. A good example occurred during the run-through of “The Epic,” when dancers Anya Cloud, Jennifer Stearns and Mullette shifted seamlessly from bouncing and rolling off each other, like the most gentle mosh pit ever, to a series of dramatic and complex physical arrangements that subtly pulled in two more dancers—Sailer and Laurel Wall-MacLane—and then, in one particular poster-worthy moment, hit a crescendo as Stearns was lifted regally above them all, and suspended just a beat longer than expected. It’s flashes like this that make the improvisational pieces worth it.
It doesn’t always work that flawlessly, of course. There’s some waiting to reach the good parts, some lulls and awkward transitions, as might be expected in any experimental performance. More than once in the run-through, improvisation veered dangerously close to simple lack of awareness of what was happening. But with the talent on display—the performers are mostly current or former company members of local professional touring troupe Headwaters—those instances should be limited. The promise of a payoff is as close to imminent as possible.
Body Parts runs nightly Thursday, July 26, through Saturday, July 28, at 7:30 PM, with a matinee Sunday, July 29, at 2 PM, at the Masquer Theatre in UM’s PARTV Center. $7 or $12 for couples. Call 542-7396 to reserve tickets.