Strong steps 

Women rule Headwaters’ annual gala concert

For better or for worse, modern dance is a field largely dominated by women. However, dances about women are far less common. To find seven such dances all included in one gala event is a rare treat, but it’s exactly what you’ll see at Headwaters Dance Company’s upcoming annual concert.

“I decided to focus on the fact that I have an all-female company and have pulled dances from the repertory that largely look at women’s lives,” says Headwaters Artistic Director Amy Ragsdale.

Before going further, I’d like to stress that though these seven pieces highlight women as their main subjects, the themes themselves are universal: aspiration, fear, silliness, belonging, frustration, love. Everyone will likely find something familiar in the show. Throughout the evening-length performance, the cast works its way through a wide variety of styles, at times spare and gestural, and at others wild and jubilant. The seven company members and one guest dancer are precise, polished and professional.

One stand-out piece is Ragsdale’s new work, “+Five.” Inspired by current troupe, all of whom are 20- and 30-something women, she wondered about the doubts, dreams and hurdles that young women contend with today. She asked them questions, such as “What are you hoping for in your life?” and created the piece’s spoken-word soundtrack with their answers. While the approach runs the risk of feeling overly sentimental or clichéd, the result is anything but. Dancers address childhood memories (Kool Aid stands and ski races), addictions, motherhood fears and natural disasters. It’s honest and insightful, made more compelling through an original score by Missoula-based musician Bethany Joyce.

click to enlarge Jasmine Woods, left, and Kaitlin Kinsley rehearse “Waterworn” for the upcoming Headwaters Dance gala concert. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Jasmine Woods, left, and Kaitlin Kinsley rehearse “Waterworn” for the upcoming Headwaters Dance gala concert.

Another powerhouse is the piece titled “21,” a solo based on an improvisational sketch of gestures by the MacArthur Genius Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones. In this physically and mentally taxing piece, lone dancer Joy French strings together a long series of poses, while reciting text written by Ragsdale. “It’s very personal to me, as the stories told are mine, and grew out of my frustration with the way rape and the threat of rape were being handled on two college campuses where I lived,” Ragsdale says. Having watched countless hours of modern dance, I would put this piece in the top 10 I have seen, if not the top five. It’s brave, and it successfully uses dance as a tool to directly confront important issues.

“Waterworn” is a rigorous and demanding duet, choreographed by Missoula native Brian Gerke and Syann Stevens, set to atmospheric music from the film Whale Rider. It addresses the physical and psychological distances that develop between two people. Those who have seen Gerke’s explosive and athletic choreography in Headwaters’ past shows know his work is not to be missed.

“It’s Not What You Think,” by New York choreographers Heidi Latsky and Larry Goldhuber, investigates the physical contrast between men and women as well as various ways of viewing power. Missoula actor Jeff Medley (making his modern dance debut) is the guest dancer and only male in the show, and he provides the counterpoint to partner Lindsey Schwickert.

Not all the pieces are quite so serious. In “The Secret Life of Coats,” by St. Louis-based choreographer Holly Seitz Marchant, dancers assume the identities of their clothing, and strut around the stage to a zesty tango. And in “Corsage,” by Boston-based choreographer Sara Sweet Rabidoux, dancers enact the long and agonizing wait by the phone that ensues when a boy fails to call. The piece evokes a sense of frustration and sadness without feeling angsty or dark.

It’s often the case that this type of concert features one or two stellar pieces, and the rest feel like filler, like an album that showcases only a couple of singles. Not so here. With choreography by some highly regarded national artists, it’s a show with pedigree executed effectively by the company. The result is by far one of Headwaters’ strongest annual concerts, offering consistently good choreography and top-shelf performances all the way through.

Headwaters Dance Company’s Gala Concert shows Thu., Nov. 21, through Sat., Nov. 23, at 7:30 PM nightly, with a Sat. matinee at 2 PM. MCT Center for the Performing Arts. $15/$10 students and seniors, at Rockin Rudy’s, or at the door.

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