Dallas — Meet the lighter side of Muscle Memory Dance Theatre. Playful, but not too crazy. Slightly theatrical, but not in the musical theater sense. Inspired by one person’s vinyl collection, the company presented Heavy Rotation: A Rebirth of Song and Movement at LIFE in Deep Ellum, a collection of six dance, three with in-house choreographers and three guests. Set to a swath of oldies-but-goodies, the artists explored a variety of themes with a different vibe from the usual contemplative, at times aloof demeanor of an M2DT show. Company members cracked a smile, frequently changed facial expressions, and overall, just had a good time.
This group of dancers was a much stronger, cohesive set than some from the last few years. Ensemble precision became tighter, performance quality matured, and physicality deepened and grew more nuanced.
And yet as a whole, they haven’t fully slipped into the skin of theatricality suggested by some of the works. Some wear it well, while others look a little uncomfortable or haven’t quite made it their own.
Kiera Amison’s It’s Complicated aptly illustrated the latter. Set to music by The Carpenters, Patsy Cline, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, with some George Carlin thrown in, four dancers in coral and blue acted out a love story, initially one-sided with the second party finally coming around towards the end. As soon as the lights went up and the music started, it was obvious that this piece would be a drastic departure from what Amison had set on M2DT in the past. It was flirtatious, a little jazzy and cute, but still contained typical modern dance maneuvers. Anna Wueller Diaz handled the acting quite well, but overall, there was zero chemistry and the other dancers looked stiff.
This work and the second brought up another common thread in the show: the unexpected. In untitled, guest artist Kayla Hamilton did not look like a traditional dancer, but the groove of her hips and pizazz of her torso isolations shoved any doubts regarding her abilities out the window. Choreographer Francine E. Ott combined Afro-Caribbean movements with modern vocabulary arranged with a lovely use of soulful dynamics to an instrumental Santana tune. Although the solo stayed mostly in one place, Hamilton brought a powerful performance missing from the previous piece.
Lesley Snelson’s Keep Us Honest delivered an interesting progression and felt closer to a typical M2DT work. Dan Fogelberg and U2 supplied the soundtrack to this large ensemble piece. Dancers in white and with amicable expressions transitioned through the choreography in a highly placed manner, with low energy and a hand-flashing motif.
Costumes shifted to gray as more dancers entered, changing the hand-flashing to finger-pointing. Facials grew more intense, a demeanor more comfortable on some of the dancers, and the artists exhibited a greater range of movement. The final section, with dancers clad in black, had a nice build but no expected big energy push. The concept conveyed was a little more vague, given the inconsistent performance qualities of the dancers, but overall, it was one of genuine contentment and satisfaction. Visually, it was the best work on the program. Large, quick arm and leg movements kept the excitement lifted, especially when done by all nine dancers, and the varied styles of costume created a stylish picture.
After an intermission, Meghan Cardwell-Wilson took the stage for Who Me?, a solo choreographed by Houston-based guest artist Amy Elizabeth. Donning a short, strapless red dress and dancing to a mixture of text and singing by Liza Minnelli, Cardwell-Wilson maneuvered through a dynamic, unpredictable sequence of steps with a coy disposition. While the movements looked stunning on her lithe form, the piece seemed an odd choice. Her normally composed, serious performance quality took a surprising turn towards fun theatricality, and although it was a huge shift, she doesn’t take it far enough and still seemed restrained.
Her expansion of choreographic material, however, showed promise. Three Dog Night provided the music for Ones, a trio with Amison, Ashley Hopson, and Anna Ferreira dressed in blue, green, and orange. Starting in silence connecting breath and movement, it was the only work from an M2DT choreographer that didn’t seem completely built around the music. After a nice grooving section and the obligatory “observe another dancer curiously” segment, the dancers found freedom as the singer mournfully warbled about one being the loneliest number. An overly long bout of silence with a prolonged repeating sequence dragged the piece down, but a lively third section continued the earthy feel from earlier.
jhon r. stronks closed out the show being…well, jhon r. stronks. Before the lights came up on him and Wayne Smith in Many Happy Messages, one of them let out a distinctive Chewbacca growl, then stronks began his falsetto singing. The lights revealed the pair dressed in very short black-and-white polka dot dresses, with stronks donning red booty shorts that he consistently showed to the audience as he slithered through very feminine, seductive movements. Add in contemporary choreography, purposefully sloppy ballet maneuvers, and funky steps, and the audience was treated to a humorous piece full of the theatricality missing from the rest of the show. The work was baffling, and program notes were of no help—best to just sit back and enjoy.
The concert as a whole offered a nice change and delivered a satisfying mix of company and guest talent. While lightheartedness and drama is not new to the company, it’s been a while since we’ve seen it and never has it encompassed an entire performance. Since many modern and contemporary companies these days have a quirky or playful element, it’ll be interesting to see if M2DT keeps this as part of their aesthetic.