Plano — Coming off a highly successful dance drama Exchange Street from the summer, 8&1 Dance Company joined forces with Vissi Dance Theater for Lines at the Courtyard Theater in Plano on Friday.
8&1 artistic director Jill Rucci was principal dancer and guest choreographer for Vissi for more than 10 years before moving to Dallas, so a collaboration with the NYC-based company (headed by Courtney Ffrench, and yes the last name has double Fs) was inevitable. Five concepts provided the cohesive thread, with each director creating or offering one of their pieces from company repertory that fits the theme.
The companies’ styles are alike enough so that one could discern the mutual influence, but each still hold distinct styles. Ffrench pulls from his background in Afro-Caribbean and house dance, with some classical Ailey training mixed in, while Rucci takes a more technical approach with modern and jazz.
The first section “Social Construct” provides a less-than-ideal first impression for both troupes. Vissi’s Lean For Me opens to thrumming house music by Dennis Ferrer with dancers in silhouette. High collars, ruffles, and distinct costume lines immediately project a sense of theatricality, only heightened by the dancers’ aggressive expressions as the lights come up. Like peacocks on display, the black-and-white clad performers strut around the stage varying between loose African-based choreography and distinct shapes, reminiscent of voguing. For such a sharp work, however, the execution is quite messy.
8&1’s side of the equation opens with a dancer in red moving to narration, while the ensemble in sleeveless work shirts and ties remain still. The dark, alternative rock sounds of Tool provide an assertive feel to this one, as well. With plenty of releasing and swinging mixed with impressive holds, the dancers demonstrate explosive energy, but the large of amount of unison work and repeating spatial patterns put it on the weak side, choreographically.
Both companies shift gears in the “Love and Loss” segment. Rucci’s Your Angel Is Waiting focuses on a couple dressed in black with a white-clad ensemble. It has a rough beginning, but the kinks and hesitant lifts smooth out towards the middle, finishing with a lovely lyrical quality. Ffrench’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” features the two men of the company, Justin Hunte and Ariel Polanco, in white skirts. A strong Ailey influence pervades the piece, and the two exhibit a delicious sensitivity to the Nina Simone track.
If you love the “High Priestess of Soul” then this concert is for you, as the majority of the remaining pieces contain her music, including both in the next section.
Jubilance abounds as the performers explore “Salvation and Redemption,” and the Ailey references keep coming. 8&1 dancers create a stunning visuals and lines in black and white skirts for Speak Out. Although timing issues pop up, this one has some standout moments, including excellent display of technique and control by Chad Geiger, a performer who continually catches the eye throughout the whole evening.
Vissi’s Sinnerman is highly reminiscent of Revelations, going beyond mere shadows of Ailey, especially in the first half. The second half shows more originality. Still, it’s their best performance of the show, containing the passion, risk, and virtuosity one would expect from an established NYC dance company.
The two groups then battle the “War of Depression” with Busting Out and Lilac Wine. The former is Vissi’s strongest work, choreographically. With an engaging blend of their signature styles, the dancers maneuver through clever transitions as variations on the same Björk song tie the piece together. Tonika Custalow especially shines in this one. 8&1’s trio to (again) Nina Simone includes some decent moments, but as a whole is somewhat forgettable.
Moving from mental to physical, they explore sensuality. Vissi turns up the heat with a highly sexualized Notes (Part 2). Reminiscent of the “Cell Block Tango” scene of Chicago, the dancers split off into various groupings for an aggressive, provocative jazz piece to Led Zeppelin. Rucci tones it down a bit for some subtle sensuality in Move Me. After several solos set against Simone text, Hannah Fozkos and Avery Wilson play a cat-and-mouse game.
For the finale, the companies take us to the club, with upbeat house music by New World Sound. The dancers switch off, displaying impressive stamina and upper body strength.
Overall, it’s an entertaining performance. Out of town companies are always appreciated and vital to the growth of the dance community and for continued conversation. For 8&1, it doesn’t rank up there with their better ones, but there were some memorable moments.