All that glitters may not be gold, but Epiphany DanceArts invites us all to shine like Diamonds in their latest offering at the Charles W. Eisemann Center in Richardson. Artistic director Melissa DeGroat collaborates with local artist Abel Garcia for a beautiful blend of dance and visual art that has a distinctly emotional impact. A score of instrumental and electronic music sets a nice tone. Lyrics are noticeably absent, which makes the concept shine through even more, and many audience members will recognize several tunes from The Piano Guys.
The evening-length work stems from the children’s book You Are Special by Max Lucado. Although the story is juvenile in nature, the message behind it is timeless for all ages. By finding our identity solely through the thoughts and words of others, we hold ourselves back from becoming something greater.
DeGroat keeps the motif of “dots and stars” to ground the piece and direct it through the various progressions. Dots represent negative words and actions of others, while stars are the positive adulations. Beginning with a simple narration asking the question “Who are you…really?” she invites the audience members to delve into their own lives while she gives them a glimpse into hers.
The dancers start the narrative in a state of childlike freedom, connecting with one another and unaware of the burdens that later come. Gossip, praise, slander and idolizing cause divisions, loneliness, fea, and insecurity. Each one of them now carries a label, which is symbolized by a dot or a star covering the palms. It’s an imprisoning path to take, and the burden can only be shed by choosing your identity in something greater than the words of people. Instead of a dot or a star, you can be a diamond, which is portrayed by empty palms and less constricting movement.
The artistic collaboration in this production is truly unique. When the program advertised live painting on stage, thoughts of a visual artist propped on stage to create while the dancer does her completely unrelated thing came to my mind, but this goes much deeper. Garcia is an integral figure of the story, even though the dancers interact with him only a few times. At the beginning, DeGroat’s solo sets up the relationship between the dancer and the painter, who is always illuminated and working throughout the seventy-five minute piece. Garcia actively contemplates the moving figure before continuing with the painting.
The canvas itself already has a background and the outline of a dancer before the show begins, so even though Garcia may partially block the view of his work as he’s creating, the audience can still get an idea of what it will be. By changing the perspective of the canvas later on, he alters the viewpoint of the audience and thus the meaning of the painting. When the dancers begin shedding their dots and stars to become diamonds, they’re invited to sit at the feet of the artist to gain perspective.
The show demonstrates the company’s growth, not only in the depth of its content, but in the range of movement vocabulary. Some segments lean more towards modern dance rather than the usual contemporary ballet. The last section “Freedom,” happening after the performers remove their dots and stars, reveals a more organic quality which matches the island-beat groove of the song and provides a visual reference to the freedom achieved.
Much of the choreography leading up to it feels more constricted and placed. That sense of moving from one position to the next still permeates other sections and is an area that can still be developed for the company overall. The choreographers seem to rely on formulaic and familiar movements that they can execute well, rather than exploring maneuvers that might better fit the theme.
For example, several segments depict heartache and isolation. The dancers’ facial expressions convey that fairly well, but is the pristine display of technical steps really the best choice for communication? The second section “Marks of the World” actually handles that surprisingly well, with more floor work, lowered torsos and traditional modern dance vocabulary. Other sections, such as “Numb” and “Overwhelmed” look more like choreographed combinations (albeit very well-performed) that convey very little of the actual title.
Regardless, the evening produces some outstanding performances. DeGroat moves through her position with a luxurious and passionate quality, utterly embodying the sense of freedom she urges the audience to find. Ivy Koval has enviable extensions and a captivating musicality that makes her impeccable performance a joy to watch. Soloists Leah Morgan and Rachel Wade respectively exemplify the agony of rejection and the downfalls of pride, each exuding a unique emotional quality from her character.
Diamonds produces a very layered and thought-provoking evening. Many audience members may pick up on several spiritual aspects, but one doesn’t have to be a person of faith to be touched and challenged by the company’s performance.