Dallas — By mixing in a little Disney-fairytale brilliance you might have some idea of what hit you with Joy Bollinger’s stunning Hillside. And then, maybe not.
If there was one wee shortcoming to this imaginative dance performed Friday and Saturday night at Moody Performance Hall as the closing work of Bruce Wood Dance’s RISE, it was too short. Those sweeping, up-in-the-air lifts! Those swirling patterns as dancers fan out! Those desperate attempts to escape!
Talk about the influence of Bruce Wood—Hillside was one heady rush of striking, gorgeous movement that you wish would never end. Beyond the pure aesthetic display of grace, however, Hillside offers a tantalizing tale of danger and rescue with, at its center, one terrific character.
Ms. Bollinger coaxed Kimi Nikaidoh, who is now the company’s artistic director, to play the role of a musing, dreamy girl who wanders on a hillside and encounters all sorts of trials and tribulations. The music comes right out of Hollywood.
The hillside—an abstract dense-foam construction 32-feet long and five-feet deep of rolling, dipping planes designed by Bollinger’s architect brother—serves as the launching pad for all the action. The ballet opens with dancers nestled in a curving slope, the only thing visible are legs that stick skyward. Twenty legs sway in the breeze. Ms. Nikaidoh wanders in, brushing the legs/wheat stalks. When she reaches the edge of the hill, she slumps into a twilight sleep.
Then the action turns from dream to nightmare with our dreamer entangled by those limbs she has so casually touched, desperately trying to break free. She’s rescued by woodland creatures in outfits of mottled leaves, attacked again by creepy, crawling monsters, fights them off with help from the woodland creatures, and with one grand, desperate act, runs the length of the hill and leaps off.
The scenes rush by at a breathtaking pace, fairly tripping over each other, with a few slow and ominous moments: in one, lighting and thunder rip over a brooding, empty land; in another, high up on the hill, monsters twist and writhe. (Tony Tucci is responsible for the stunning lighting; Nathaniel Atkins for set illustration and Carlos Nicholls and Roberto Riesco for set construction.)
The most stunning scene takes place when the stage fills with dancers on the ground and atop the hill swirling and sweeping and shooting skyward, looking like airplanes swooping daringly low. In the midst of this, our heroine flits in and out, reveling in the surging stream.
As for Ms. Nikaidoh, not only does she dance with willowy softness, she also projects such bare emotion that the tale goes beyond fanciful to something real and close to home.
We see a bright future for Ms. Bollinger (she made a stunning debut last year with Carved in Stone, a work that made the top of every local list of best dance performances of 2016), but we need not fear that Wood’s own works will lose any of their power. Ms. Nikaidoh and Ms. Bollinger as the company’s rehearsal director and répétiteur, respectively, have seen to that. Wood’s The Only Way Through Is Through, a driving, intense dance set to the equally driving music of Philip Glass, fairly boiled, while his Lay Your Burdens Down went in an entirely different direction, Zen-like in its quiet gravity.
The Only Way Through Is Through opens in silence, as seven dancers emerge lunging and stamping, hitting the floor with bare hands. In swiftly changing patterns, they move with ferocious energy, covering the stage in great gulps. Austin Sora breaks away, moving in snake like surges, then magically joins the others as they whiplash across the stage. That image is repeated by Akilah Brooks and then again by Emily Drake, the image of three indomitable women.
The work builds in dramatic intensity and at its height, we watch as each woman runs through a gauntlet of dancers. With great force, each breaks the stretched-out hands only to rejoin the line.
If the Only Way Through Is Through is linear, loud, reckless and sharp, Lay Your Burdens Down is as slow and quiet as melting ice. There are three shallow bowls spaced at distances around the stage; occasionally water drips from the ceiling. The dancers, clad in white with long dresses that fan out, touch and cradle each other gently, taking turn leaning over a bowl and catching water in their cupped hands. At the end, the dancers split apart, and as eight slowly sink to the floor, Kevin Pajarillaga leans over a bowl, looks up to the heavens and catches the falling water in his hand.
Like many of Wood’s poetic works, Lay Your Burdens Down asks tantalizing questions and creates a state of awe.
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.