Intentionally or not, Southern Methodist University's Meadows Dance Ensemble puts the screws on itself every year. Except for the fact that Lance Armstrong has fallen from grace, consider it the Lance Armstrong of dance, consistently delivering the goods.
Wednesday night was no exception, other than there was no knock-your-socks-off Martha Graham or Twyla Tharp piece in the program. But solid, yes.
It was also a rather short program, consisting of a neo-classic ballet, an up-to-the-minute cool jazz piece, and a silky new work that cried 1940s sophistication.
If classical ballet can be the downfall of university programs, Dr. Mel A. Tomlinson's premiere Le Coeur de Ballet (The heart of ballet) put that notion to rest. From the minute three dancers in white tutus form a pretty tableau at the left side of the stage, with a shaft of light illuminating their bodies, we were hooked. Rather boldly, Dr. Tomlinson chose Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5, op. 64 and the "Polonaise" from Eugene Onegin.
The Balanchine influence—with a tad of Jules Perrot's Pas de Quatre and Petipa's Swan Lake—was evident from the start, with the Balanchine influence understandable as Dr. Tomlinson had been a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. Actually, Le Coeur de Ballet was more Balanchine than Balanchine, big on swift, tightly formatted patterns and brilliant footwork.
The three dancers at the beginning are joined by a fourth, rearranging their pretty tableau slightly, à la Pas de Quatre, with the newcomer taking the queen bee role of Marie Taglioni standing on pointe, arms curved overhead, while the other dancers gather low to the ground. The stage darkens, and a new set of dancers emerges from the other side, again three of them, in identical white tutus. (And by the way, those tutus are smashing.)
The idea is repeated, with yet another set of two, and then three dancers are taking a position with white light illuminating them. At last, the entire stage is lit, and the real dancing begins, bright and crisp, with smooth transitions as dancers break into groups of threes and fours, until all twelve are on stage.
In one brief segment, two dancers execute the same little piqué and frappé steps, so perfectly synchronized in everything from tilted heads to open arms that the effect was of seeing something of breathtaking beauty, of jewels glittering in motion.
The entire ballet had the scintillating assurance, if not the daring, of Balanchine.
So much for beauty: Billy Siegenfeld's Getting There—set to music by Thelonious Monk—was all wired-up nerve. Eight dancers in black pants and satin shirts in jewel colors of dark blue, purple, red and pale blue fan out, isolated and indifferent. One slaps hands emphatically, another falls to the ground. Occasionally, two face off, bristling with ire.
That's the first section of Monk's Blue Monk, where coolness is competitive. In the second section, they let loose in a rat-a-tat barrage of looping turns, jerky shoulder rolls, low-to-the-ground slithers. Now there are eleven of them, and they zoom in and out like comets, coming close to each other but never careening into mayhem. It's pretty heady, and maybe they have reached, if not friendship, truce.
Bruce Wood's new piece, Zing a Little Zong had the advantage of live music featuring bass, saxophone, piano and vocalists Gary Lynn Floyd and Denise Lee stationed at the far right back. It has a night club feel, circa 1940—fitting since the music is by Harry Warren, George Gershwin and Cy Coleman. It's late at night as the jackets are off and the white tuxedo ties fall loose, and the mood is relaxed.
As a few partygoers mill around the dimly-lit club, Harry Feril takes over the space with smooth bellows-like arches, as though his whole body expands and contracts in air. When couples join in, they move with cat-like grace, like silk fabric fluttering and billowing in the wind. That's how those easy lifts and descents appear, looking simple when actually very complicated.
Mr. Wood's connection to the music serves him well, as it shows his grasp of the change in mood of an era. In Zing a Little Zong, romance carries the day.
◊ Photos by Sharen Bradford of The Dancing Image
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, TheDallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.