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Spring Dance messes with the head

What goes on inside the head? Each of the pieces in this year’s Spring Dance Concert seemed to tangle with that question in distinctive ways, exploring the tension between thought and movement, investigating the very character of tension itself, how it can tighten, threaten, release and relax. What the head contains—thought—is what renders dance, but it can also dog it: Each of these pieces, with its own voice, examined what happens when concept becomes effect. This was a thoughtful show, but never once did thought threaten to bring down the dance in this masterful and expressive production of nine original pieces.

Naranj opened the evening, choreographed by University of Montana adjunct instructor Felicia Maria. A lone dancer appeared from the darkness to begin a body narrative that started with his head. The dancer, Brian Gerke, possessed an almost unnerving confidence on the stage, and he was the right dancer to begin the show in a piece that was gutsy, fierce, and highly energetic. The piece built to a frenzy that threatened to control Gerke, yet he remained in control, mastering the rhythms and acrobatics of everything from street dance to East Indian structures. With stupendous fluidity, he held all the styles at once, moving without distraction from one to the other in great wild commands of space, and also with small, tight movement to focus our attention. Gerke found the through-line in his own body that unified all the styles, his physical expression one powerful, blended river of movement. The choreographer brought attention at last from the wild coursing through the body right up to the head, where she settled, considered and then quieted.

Later in the evening, during Nicole Bradley Browning’s moving and lyrical I-95, it was almost impossible to recall the pace and motor of Naranj, the contrast at first overwhelming. But the entire evening had a through-line, too, and the pieces were connected in their great ride and empathy. Browning, with tender attention, had woven her five dancers together in muted colors with a powerful sophistication. The eye always knew where to go, her sense perfect for what could be peripheral and what had to be pivotal. Browning’s piece, set to slow, deep piano chords, throbbed with an uncomfortable aggression, even edging up to violence at times. Born out of the choreographer’s experience of living in Washington, D.C., in September 2001, the piece evoked domestic violence and violence to the soul. Her highway of dancers provided a route for escape and reflection, their bodies rendered into feeling. Browning concentrated on her dancers’ heads often. One dancer’s head would be grabbed up by another dancer, or two would attempt to push down another’s head in a strange, eerie gesture of oppression and baptism. The piece wondered what the head contains.

In Gestalt, two dancers were set in motion by a wind chime, suspended with pendulous weight from an invisible heaven. Contemplation was offset by an external force, but nevertheless the piece was as contemplative as the others. The delicate music gave way to quiet. Choreographer Jennifer Walker, a recent dance-major graduate, employed the power of silence in her work and, even more effectively, the power of deep stillness. Another pair of pieces—though not formally paired—used ensembles in racing, rollicking energy. Sara Pfeifle’s Out of Stasis and Matty Hancock’s Malcontent both carried big dramatic oomph, both seized the opportunity for costume and music to add drama, and burst with tight little flames of synchronized pulsing movement, pulling dancers in pairs or trios out of formation, then pushing them back into larger collaborations. In Effort Fall, the dancers—two of them mothers with small children—considered the rhythms of the simple, familiar move, the weighted repetitions of daily work. As the piece evolved, the three of them—who began as strong, unique forms—soon appeared to be objects subject to physics, their bodies heavy with effort and swing, pushed into space by heavy momentum. Cohesion, like Naranj, began with its solitary thinker, light shining down upon her head. Then, in a collaboration choreographed by dancers Gerke and Syann Motl, the stage went black, a pause, after which the woman appeared across the stage, now prone. I loved the moment the male dancer burst from her side; he was hidden until he seemed to appear from her rib.

Floor movement played a principal role in all of these pieces and, coupled with the exploration of simple physics, made the dances feel primal, necessary, elemental.

It’s only natural that a show produced on the Montana stage just before graduation would ring with a certain excitement and anticipation. Each year the Spring Dance Concert presents this consummation, this selection of student and faculty work, and you can feel it is their best work. You can feel the effort, the pride, the thought. You can feel.

The Spring Dance Concert runs May 5–8 at the UM Montana Theatre. Performances begin at 7:30, and tickets cost $15 for the general public, $12 for students/seniors. For more information, call the Drama/Dance Box Office at 243-4581.

arts@missoulanews.com

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