Muscle Memory Dance Theatre presented its annual dance festival this weekend, aptly titled "Pilot." The concert featured eight emerging choreographers, and offered a memorable sampling of modern dance.
The opening act, Paper Wait, was choreographed by Holly Arnold of Phase 2 Dance Ensemble. The piece featured four dancers, two dressed in green shirts with khaki pants and two in what resembled tuxedo pants and a white button-down shirt.
The piece opens with one of the casually dressed dancers kneeling in a corner, sifting through pieces of paper on the floor, seemingly desperate to find answers to an unknown question in her pile of papers. She retreats to the stage where the other dancers join her, one by one. Although the stark difference in costumes might lend one to believe that each pair represents a different character or motivation, the dancers’ movements were very similar as they moved about somewhat aimlessly through the space.
No doubt, the aimless movement was exactly what Arnold was going for. Her description of the piece in the program called for "endless circles, falling down again lost in thought, and the thought of a better direction, asking, ‘Will I ever catch a break?’ " Interestingly, this piece premiered at the Barefoot Brigade Dance Festival in January under the title Straws, Strings, and Suction Cups. Although the change was not addressed in the program, the updated title was a clever play on words that more clearly represented the motivation of the piece.
The second dance, U.Knows, by local choreographers and performer Jessica Thomas, was a visceral piece that offered beautiful moments of imagery. In one moment Thomas lies on her back with her head and limbs floating above her, moving as weightless as seaweed swaying gently at the bottom of the sea. Suddenly the waters turn rough and her movements become more violent, yet not at the sake of grace. In another moment nearer to the end of the piece, she stands facing the audience opening and closing her mouth as a direct reaction of her gut (literally).
Thomas’ choreography is nothing less than organic, and as a performer she gives 100 percent of herself to her audience. While the motivation behind the work as a whole may not be crystal clear to the audience, there is no denying that each movement has its place in her body, on the stage, and in that moment. One audience member said that she felt as though she were taking the journey with the dancer, feeling each movement. For others, it was like being a voyeur, watching with guilt at the very private moments of this individual.
The third piece of the concert was from Kayla Jenkins of Oklahoma’s Perpetual Motion Modern Dance, Brainstorm, a flirty and rhythmic piece that began with three dancers strutting out on to the stage, singing a snappy tune. Jenkins describes the piece as an exploration of "the distance between perception and reality in a fit of mental confusion and/or excitement," which would explain why the dancers’ singing is at first upbeat, but soon punctuated with sobbing.
Soon the dancers are still and quiet, and Kate Nash’s vocals kicks in to her song "Habanera." The dancers move about the stage with their hips mimicking the seductive sway of the tune. There are some very nice moments of choreographed sequences that are danced in unison, which Modern dance choreographers tend to shy away from. Visually the costumes, movements, and attitudes of the dancers fit perfectly with the first half of the dance.
The second half of Brainstorm left the flirtatiousness behind and moved into a more serious place, supported by the music of Florence and the Machine. The dancers’ attitudes shift from cool and confident to purposeful yet panicked, and their movement mirrors this dynamic shift. The end of the piece ends in silent movement, leaving us wanting to hear something more.
The final work of the first half was a lovely duet featuring Dom Huynh and Jackie Beth Shilcutt, (Shilcutt was also the choreographer). Trust opens with Shilcutt draped over the shoulders of her standing partner. As they begin to dance together they perform a series of complicated and beautiful lifts that showcase the dancers’ strength, and as the title lends itself, trust between them required to pull off such feats.
Trust was a highlight of the first part of the concert. The dancing was grounded and strong, and the dancers truly in sync with one another. There were exquisite moments and interesting shapes formed between the dancers in their partnering sequences, and the music was a perfect accompaniment. It left the audience abuzz, which is exactly how you wish to transition into an intermission.
After a short break, Living Motion Dance Company welcomed the audience back to the second half of the show with As I Crumble. Choreographed by Lacie Minyard, this piece offered the largest ensemble of the night, with five dancers onstage in black tops and black and white skirts of various design. The languish movement of the dancers and the continuous chanting of the phrase, "This bitter Earth, tree of life," set the tone of the dance early on.
Minyard describes the work as an "emotional quintet that takes the audience on a tour of the bleak and broken." As the dancers move about the stage, the imagery was of Eve grasping for the forbidden apple from the Tree of Knowledge. One visually striking moment occurred near the end of the piece, where the dancers are positioned in a diagonal line across the stage. One-by-one they break into individual movement, each keeping the essence and tone of the dance alive but highlighting their individuality.
The next dance, Dissections, was presented by choreographer Kyla Olson of Flatlands Dance Theatre. Olson performed in the piece alongside two female dancers, set to the dark and sometimes overwhelming score of composer Henryk Gorecki. The score reminded of the movie Psycho, with a distracting, piercing tone. Nonetheless, the dancers kept the audience engaged.
There were some lovely moments in the piece where the dancers gently push one another through the space by pressing the palm of their hand against their fellow dancers’ shoulder. Despite these moments of partnering, the dance had a very lonely feel to it. The women appeared to be dancing in a vast, desolate space with imagery of planets in orbit. The work, however, is an interpretation of Picasso’s "Girl before a Mirror."
The show closed with another male/female duet choreographed by Amy Querin of Fresno Dance Collective. FITS! Together was a nice counter to the previous duet, Trust. Interestingly, the dance opened in the exact same fashion with the female dancer slumped over top her male counterpart. This piece, however, represented a more complex relationship between man and woman.
The dancers quickly move from a partnership of passion and tribal eroticism to face an imminent power struggle brought on by a desperate need to cling to one another.
The piece was gritty, from the tense movement to the dancers smeared with dirt and costuming reminiscent of cavemen. A whirlwind of emotion, the dance comes to an ends just as the female break free, only to be stopped in her tracks by her partner, who is on his knees tightly clasping her at the waist. In this final moment of vulnerability neither dancer looks at the other, offering a powerful scene.
Overall, it was a welcome sampling of modern dance and emerging choreographers. We’ll look forward to "Pilot" in 2012.