Poetry in motion 

New choreographic voices at Spring Dance

A good academic dance concert is like an anthology of poems by different authors—the success of the whole rests on the strength and uniqueness of each choreographic voice. The University of Montana’s annual Spring Dance Concert displays the accomplishments of eight female choreographic voices in a veritable “Best of” show to end the school year. With a concert like this one, the audience has an opportunity to observe the execution of an ephemeral collection of visual poems performed with conviction.

The program features four works by faculty members, and these set a standard with distinct textures. Producing faculty member Michele Antonioli welcomes the audience with her invigorating “Cloud Song at Sunset.” This joyfully energetic contemporary ballet celebrates dusk, with costumes and lighting that suggest a vivid orange and pink sky. Antonioli demands strength and classical athleticism from her finely rehearsed dancers; when they move in unison, the dancers’ movement is fluid and free. There is no rigidity in Antonioli’s historical classicism.

In “hyperTHERMIA,” visiting guest artist Antonietta Vicario creates a visual landscape: The theater’s architecture is revealed through a Brechtian design of raw light bulbs and exposed equipment; the entire expanse of “backstage” is revealed; and suspended cages hold blocks of ice, which rhythmically drip into metal bowls. This sound-score pays homage—oddly, given the title—to the victims of hypothermia and complements the dancers’ snowy white costumes. The movement throughout is athletic and visceral. At its end, spinning movement creates a whirling dervish of unison from which the dancers fall to the floor like snow angels and break into eerie laughter. The vocal work creates tension as the chorus of voices diminishes. Vicario’s work is a reality check, resonating with the power of live performance in this age of virtual entertainment.

Assistant professor Nicole Bradley Browning has two contrasting pieces in the program [full disclosure: Browning is married to Indy arts editor Skylar Browning]. In “Spinning Ancient Anew,” a group of four dancers slide, spiral and leap out of an integrated form with many parts. The dancers, fully connected to their breath, execute the kinetic pathways of movement. The costumes’ shades of brown, orange and beige are reminiscent of sepia tone photos. Bradley Browning’s second contribution, “I Have a Past,” is much more surreal and comedic, reinventing the female trappings of a hoop skirt. The solo opens with a whimsical inverted cone shape and a disembodied foot performing a puppet play. The truly talented foot of Anya Cloud grasps, waves and articulates through every joint.

Among the student works, two have the strongest movement signatures before the final piece. “Happenstance” is a playful meditation on the synchronicities of time and space. The choreographer, Helen Derheim, performs in her own piece with three other dancers who share the stage equally. Four metaphorical objects are explored: a plant, a book, a frame and a camera, suggesting, respectively, the movement of growing plants, the image of a thinking dancer, the framing of performance, and the objectification of the audience by the performer. The movement is playful, with luscious backbends, floor movements, swinging arms and leaping sequences.

“There You Are,” choreographed by Kaila June Gidely, is another noteworthy student piece—a delicate work exploring the individual presence of the dancers, whose breath and rhythm constitute the sound score. The gesture of hand to heart and hand to womb is repeated throughout. There is a strong use of the diagonal lines of the stage as dancers fall, spin, reach and handstand. The movement is executed with internal awareness and quiet connection as duets, solos and group unisons gently appear and disappear.

Among these articulate works, there are a few exceptions of underdeveloped choreographic voice. Ricki Lu Biehl’s “Deni, Desespoir, Defaite” drowns in lack of theatrical tension as her movement is lost to literally illustrating the words of a song. And Laurel Wall-MacLane’s “Come On In” needs more time to deepen its movement vocabulary.

These exceptions do not mar the overall quality of the program. Judging a compilation of work such as this brings to mind a quote by philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who wrote, “Union differentiates in every grouping no matter how complex, whether it be in cells in the body, or individuals, in couples, or in groups, or in nations, if the union is successful and so thrives then all the units are enabled to perfect and fulfill themselves.”

Chardin’s quote could apply to the entire concert, but the final dance of the program, “Hung Out to Dry,” choreographed by Lu Biehl, illustrates it best. The opening image is of clouds projected onto a scrim, creating a world reminiscent of painter Andrew Wyeth’s famous work, “Christina’s World.” Clotheslines are moved to create shifting spatial relationships and backgrounds. The cords become a cat’s cradle for a group of desperate housewives—sheets are hung, wrapped and twirled in a spinning cycle of drudgery and oppression. These washing women bond and emerge from the mundane, repetitive motion of their labor to jazzy full-bodied expression. At the end, they shed their housecoats to cavort in their retro undergarments in celebration of being together—“enabled to perfect and fulfill themselves,” as Chardin wrote—through community.

The University of Montana Spring Dance Concert runs through Saturday, May 7, with performances each evening at 7:30 PM in the Montana Theatre. Tickets are $15 for the general public and $12 for students.

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