Dallas — The word “contemporary” in the dance world invokes a multitude of connotations depending on the genre, and the Aug. 3 SoulEscape Collaboration at the historic Majestic Theater in downtown Dallas highlights some of the distinct styles in the North Texas area.
The concert is presented by Justin Giles’ SoulEscape, a contemporary dance company originally based out of Coppell but currently travels around the country offering educational and performance opportunities through conventions and intensives. Giles’ choreography has been featured on So You Think You Can Dance, and his company is one of many that have popped up in the last decade as a performance outlet for those coming out of competition dancing.
As the opening act of weeklong event, which includes master classes and a student showcase, he enlists four local companies plus fellow SYTYCD choreographer Dee Caspary. Each of the homegrown groups boasts a signature style that contributes to the variety of the North Texas dance scene, and all fall under the umbrella term of “contemporary.”
Straddling the fuzzy line between contemporary ballet and contemporary modern, Bruce Wood Dance Project opens the show with Our Last Lost Chance. It displays Woods’ signature movements, such traveling ronde de jambes, intricate circular arm patterns, and luscious arabesques, and is one of his better works.
Joshua Peugh has created his own little niche with Dark Circles Contemporary Dance and brings his popular work Slump. Like many of his light-hearted, quirky pieces, dancers don clothing from the 1950s and 60s and present a variety of facial expressions, as Peugh seamlessly blends vernacular movement with maneuvers from his ballet and modern training.
Although Dallas’ only professional tap company Rhythmic Souls may seems worlds apart from the other groups, Katelynn Harris has fused elements of the contemporary genre to create a unique style of contemporary tap. Dancers move to string and piano music while exhibiting excellent dynamics and athleticism. Body percussion and a greater use of the rest of the body prove to be impressive elements that hopefully reappear in future works.
The two other pieces in the first half, Caspary’s Standing Alone (performed by Zelig Williams) and Pedestrian Dance Movement’s Hollow, demonstrate the most similar style to Giles. Williams captivates his audience with torso isolations that accentuate the subtle beats in the music, while Giovanni Allen and Haley Trevino in the latter equally mesmerize with a subtle sensitivity to the melody.
Giles’ Love and War comprises the second half and consists of a mixture of film and dancing on stage. It’s the oft-told story about a loved one going to war and the after effects of combat. The narrative progresses through vignettes of the husband (Spencer Dennis) saying goodbye, memories of happy times, and the loneliness of the wife (Rose Yager). A soldier’s loss on the battlefield brings pain and grief, causing alienation and tension between the couple, yet they find resolution in the end. It’s guaranteed to strike an emotional chord, but there’s bound to be conflicting emotions and interpretations, depending on the level of one’s involvement with the military and its service members.
Images on screen give little context, but the clothing suggests World War II era, and figures on film seamlessly transition to bodies on stage. While the video is quite well done, it contains no dancing and sometimes drags the performance down, making one wonder if the emotional effects of the film could’ve been achieved with the movement itself.
The style of choreography is pretty typical of most contemporary dance, complete with the usual acoustic/folk music, but Giles goes further and utilizes the communicative aspect of the genre more effectively than most. He has a better sense of timing dynamics and explores a greater variety of tempos. Even though the story is solely about two people, he makes good use of the ensemble as well. The ladies mimic the movement of the wife and the men perform unison with the husband, all of which lends a welcomed emphasis without being over-powering.
Although Dennis and Yager move beautifully together, with great chemistry and tension, the best moments come from a strong men’s trio depicting the battlefield and a ladies quartet later in the story, which exhibits a delicious sense of release.
The work itself runs a little over an hour, and after a long first half with the guest companies, the energy for Love and War seems to lag. This is by no fault of the dancers, as they maintain an impressive sense of engagement throughout, but the second part of the piece focuses heavily on depression and conflict as the show overall creeps closer to the two-hour mark. The dance could easily stand on its own and would make for a more comfortably-paced show, but the collaboration with local companies and the chance for those artists to reach new audiences is necessary trade-off.
Giles’ work is largely successful in reaching its main demographic (those in attendance for the workshop) and general audiences, but not everyone will be enamored with it. The commercial style of contemporary dance perpetuated by television and competitions can be wearisome and formulaic at times. It’s a great outlet for storytelling and physicality but in the spirit of the philosophy from which it came, innovation needs to continue.