Fort Worth — A Dark Circles Contemporary Dance concert could take audiences anywhere. Artistic director Joshua Peugh caught everyone’s attention beginning in 2011 as one who creates quirky, humorous pieces that don’t take themselves too seriously. More recent works have taken a turn down a dark or mysterious path, but this year’s annual Spring Series, presented at the Erma Lowe Hall Studio Theatre at Texas Christian University, strikes a nice balance with a cohesive concert embodying three distinct flavors.
The world premiere of Bleachers (the closing work and concert title) had seen the biggest buzz leading up to the concert, but the first two works (also world premieres) deliver such a strong showing, it’s impossible to pick a favorite of the evening.
Fencing meets contemporary dance with Peugh’s HALT!, and of his two works on the bill, this one leans towards his typical fare, with an eclectic musical lineup. All six dancers don fencing attire, including mask. The costume creates an androgynous look, especially since the dancers have similar body types, and due to the variety of movement and qualities, any associations with masculine and feminine qualities fade away.
Plenty of moments contain Peugh’s signature choreography, although even after all this time, his movement phrases still surprise. One still doesn’t quite know what to expect or what will come next. In some parts the dancers fling their bodies around with just enough control that it doesn’t come across chaotic, and other times find them with a softer tone and subtle isolations.
A long red carpet adds a bold touch to an already vibrant work, as it gets rolled up and shifted around. Humor and eccentricity involve characters at times, like the dancer wearing a long white coat with a splashy red flower pattern on it. Acting as a celebrity, she (or he?) struts down the crimson path then later turns into a mad, frantic ruler. The carpet also turns into a royal robe for another performer.
Throughout most of the dance, the masks seem to just be another random piece of an abstract puzzle, but the final segment glues it all together. It really is about fencing, and the final match is a dance-off, of sorts.
A more technical work allows the dancers to show off a different side of their artistry, this time with guest artist Greg Dolbashian’s Evermore, featuring poignant music by Christopher Tyng.
As the lights illuminate an impressive Cody Berkeley, thick haze creates a murky view where only part of his movement is seen. The haze fades, but the point remains. Rather than present a clear narrative, the six dancers shift in and out of moments and pictures that hint and whisper.
In a sharp contrast to the faceless individuals of the previous piece, the artists connect with each other and the audience in a tangible manner, even when no physical contact occurs. Solos, duets, and trios convey curiosity, uncertainty, urgency, conflict, and surrender, all within the context of relationships.
Partnering segments go beyond typical couplings and patterns, delivering a fresh perspective on how to convey interaction on stage. Dolbashian’s vocabulary has a clear contemporary modern vibe, but his use of stillness and quieter moments sets his choreography apart from many others in the genre.
What’s even more impressive is the dancers’ handling of his piece, as there appears to be no clear distinction between the dance and the dancer. Company member Lena Oren drives this point home in her reflection on the choreographic and rehearsal process (edited for brevity):
“Evermore, in both the way it was created and the way it is performed is truly just an experience of working through life. One should watch this piece to better understand oneself, humans, relationships, and the act of existing. It is a piece, which exemplifies that art is not always something separate from reality. In Evermore, we let ourselves get lost within the world we create. Really, we just let life happen.”
The titular work takes an even different turn from the previous two. The premise of Bleachers is the vague messages young men receive regarding sex and the lack of guidance regarding sexuality, especially with gay boys.
Chadi El-Koury, Orlando Agawin, Olin Blackmore, and Berkeley enter the stage wearing pedestrian clothes (including sneakers) with a 1990s nostalgic tone. Vocabulary draws heavily on athletic movement with distinct masculine qualities, and partnering work displays friendship and camraderie with many daring lifts that usually leaves one of the dancers airborne.
Gestures and references to male genitalia clearly convey the theme of sexuality but not to the point of vulgarity. Intimate moments between dancers as they explore same-sex relationships deftly maneuver that thin line, and although it may challenge audience comfort level, it doesn’t push it overboard.
A lone female (Oren or Taylor Rodman) completes a short duet with El-Koury to convey his attraction to other men. Passionate solos (with an especially powerful one by Agawin) and various ensemble moments display frustration and loneliness but also return to that sense of unity and finally, acceptance.
Smooth transitions and careful handling of the subject matter make this work stand out, but the men’s powerful execution proves most impressive. By the end, one wonders how they have the energy to stand for a bow.