Snow whirls amid a flurry of wheeling arms and legs. A trio of young women, bundled in scarves and sweaters and snowflake-patterned socks, frolics in the winter weather. Another woman pours boiling water from a tea kettle into a cup of Swiss Miss hot chocolate, and dons layer upon layer of woolen clothes, preparing to brave the elements.
This scene may not sound like what you expect from a modern dance piece, but "The Enduring Season," by Missoula-based choreographer Jes Mullette, highlights the narrative potential that modern dance offers through the use of props, carefully selected music and nuanced lighting. It sets a clear mood, similar to the way a short art film does. Mullette created "The Enduring Season" as part of the Bare Bait Dance company's second-annual Springboard show, which is a venue for company membersand occasional guests like Mulletteto showcase original choreography. The piece doesn't tell a complete story, but it cleverly depicts the love-hate relationship so many of us have with winter. And, as a born-and-raised Montanan, Mullette knows all about winter.
Another thing Montana dancers like Mullette probably know: There's little opportunity for modern dancers to create work and perform it in this state. It's a situation that Bare Bait Dance seems to be attempting to remedy. Founder and artistic director Joy French formed the company in 2011 with the goal to create dance in Montana, for Montanans. At this annual showcase, budding choreographers within the company have the chance to see their work on stage, in publican opportunity many of them have had only once or twice in the past, if ever.
This year's lineup includes an excerpt from French's upcoming evening-length work, "Wall City News," which takes inspiration from the tradition of 20th century prison newspapers, and the life of prisoners during that era. During the piece, French reads from an account of a penitentiary track meet, taken from a 1930s San Quentin prison newspaper. Dancers wear white tank tops and work pants, and their synchronized movements are reminiscent of those of inmates working or exercising in a yard. They dance under the watchful eye of three black-clad wardens, who lurk around the edges of the stage. The ambient soundscape was composed by Missoula stalwart musician John Sporman, inspired in part by his visit to the Deer Lodge Prison during which he recorded sounds throughout the facility.
Sound also plays an important role in Allison Herther's piece, "Symbiosis," which is perhaps the most viscerally intriguing of the production's collection. Her abstract soundtrack includes noises such as breathing, and what sounds like an amplified, slowed-down mosquito. Herther's choreography uses stillness to powerful effect, a creative choice that many choreographers often seem to forget as an option. Dancers in asymmetrical black dresses move through gestural phrases and sweeping duets that evoke ancient druidic rites, but also feel strangely futuristic and sci-fi. We want to know: Are the dancers meant to be human? Alien? Animal? Are they a coven of witches, or do they represent something far more abstract? The work is mildly creepy, but compellingly so.
Elizabeth Pertis' piece, "Fewer Dams," isn't as creepy, but also uses sound and abstraction. Her score includes pieces by the Vegetable Orchestra, which, believe it or not, creates music solely out of the sounds vegetables can make when turned into instruments. (It's cool, really. Trust me.) Her quartet makes good use of simple costumessubtle blues and grays and greensand, in keeping with the title, the dancers' movements suggest the fluidity and grace of water. It has been exciting to see pieces by Pertis in both the 2013 Springboard show and this year's (she used the vegetable music last year, too). The growth and depth of her work offer solid evidence that Springboard provides valuable opportunities to prolific choreographers in this town. That's not to say that the production reveals all top-tier choreography. Some pieces don't stand out. Some fall flat. But when it comes to offering exposure to local choreographers and an opportunity to flourish, and when it comes to giving audiences a taste of brand-new, never-before-seen work, Bare Bait's definitely holding up its end of the bargain.
Bare Bait Dance's Springboard showcase continues at Stage 112 Fri., Jan. 31, and Sat., Feb. 1, at 7 PM with a Sat. matinee at 2 PM. $15/$13 advance at the Downtown Dance Collective or ddcmontana.com.