Dallas — If North Texas learns anything from Bruce Wood Dance’s season opener Harvest, it’s that Bruce Wood cared about his audiences, and the company is still full of surprises. A packed Friday night at the Moody Performance Hall proves the impact the company has had, with the most bustling lobby I’ve seen in their ten years of existence. It’s difficult to pinpoint which of their three works generated the most buzz, but my guess is that the concert opener brought many new patrons to the hall.
Wood’s Follow Me has a most interesting backstory, which the late founder himself imparted in a pre-show video. It was commissioned in 2004 by the Commanding General of Georgia’s well-known Army base Fort Benning, and while the pairing seemed unlikely (due to the typical and opposite political leanings of the military and artists), Wood dove in headfirst. His research included a visit to the base, first-hand experience with some of their training exercises, and talking with servicemembers. The result was an endearing tribute to the human side of infantry service, premiering at the opening of RiverCenter for the Performing Arts in Columbus, GA.
It’s one of his shorter works, clocking in at 19 minutes, and includes a set of performers from the military and veteran community in uniform. This weekend’s special guests are veterans from North Texas, with Friday night hosting two from the Marine Corps and two from the Army. The vast majority of the dance had them facing upstage on right and left, standing at attention, then they join the dancers center stage at the end, facing the audience for a salute.
With the placement of the veterans, the action of the dance remains center stage and mainly features Matthew Roberts, Gabriel Speiller, Cole Vernon, and Seth York in various groupings. Three ladies (Jaime Borkan, Jillyn Bryant, and Olivia Rehrman on Friday night) appear towards the beginning for a series of tender duets illustrating the sacrifices of military spouses. Sadly, those sections do not last long, due the overall length of the piece. Their compassionate gestures, skillful partnering, and luxurious lines are a sight to behold.
As with many Wood works, the vocabulary has a strong ballet foundation, but this one is the closest to traditional modern dance than most of his other dances. Perhaps it’s the need to portray the precision and discipline of military service alongside the complex emotions of infantry service, as the shapes and transitions for the men brilliantly conveyed it all with clarity and emotion. The strength and quiet power of their movements evoke images of Ted Shawn and the early men of modern dance, as they maneuver through unison phrases and partnering. At the end, audience members are on their feet with applause before the lights went out. Dance again proves its ability to speak to our commonalities, a driving concept behind Wood’s creative process and success in reaching a wide range of audiences.
The second work captures a completely different vibe. For Bryan Arias’ world premiere Live, Love, Laugh, stage dressings disappear, and a thin layer of haze partially obscures the exposed backstage hardware. Donning light blue attire, the dancers remain in constant contact throughout most of the work. The first section has them in a large group, then they break off into duets. Fluid contemporary vocabulary with occasional pedestrian yet quirky movement fits well alongside unique partnering, and the piece overall speaks to general, light-hearted human interactions. An earthy, hip hop-inspired unison segment surprises a bit towards the end.
As a whole, the dancers excel in everything Arias has for them, both technically and performance-wise, and is a nice standalone work. In comparison to the other works on the bill, though, it’s a bit underwhelming, especially compared to his previous work for BWD, My Heart Remembers.
Closing the performance is Artistic Director Joy Bollinger’s In My Your Head, which is gloriously out of character for her and the company. Their performance this summer of Garrett Smith’s earthy Forbidden Paths demonstrated a greater range of movement qualities, but this one goes even further. Bollinger has a distinct impetus for the work, but it doesn’t come across as a driving narrative. Her confusion and frustration with how information is disseminated and pushed in an increasingly harsh environment for political and cultural discourse reads loud and clear through emotion, rather than taking a side. While popular, lyrical music is not out of the norm for a BWD performance, many patrons might be a bit startled by the electro-rock sounds of Radiohead.
The dancers begin with a gestural phrase, very similar to how Wood began many of his dances, but with increasing intensity, their movements expand. Flailing limbs and out-of-control turns stand in stark contrast to the dancers’ usual pristine lines. At times, some performers manipulate the movement of others. Black costumes, sharp lighting lines, and changing curtain shapes enhance the cloak of confusion that sends the dancers into a whirling frenzy. With wild abandon, they fling themselves around the stage — hair disheveled, sweat dripping — and end with gestures of desperation which defy stage performer etiquette. It’s a moment I only hint at here, as you’ll have to see the performance to feel the full effect.