Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Minnesota Dance Theatre, Minneapolis

Minneapolis, Minnesota

For the fall performances of the Minnesota Dance Theatre, Artistic Director Lise Houlton assembled a group of dances that mirrors much of Minnesota's dance community, reflecting a diversity of choreographic impulses, a strong level of technical competence and artistic expression, and an earnest desire to impress. While the articulation of a clear and compelling purpose and vision has not been the troupe's strong suit, the present program was more cohesive and satisfying than many of its recent stagings.

The program, presented this weekend at The Lab Theater in Minneapolis's Warehouse District, offered two world premieres. Mathew Janczewski's Tr├ębuchet was the more successful. Working with a variety of pulsing music tempos by Alexander East, Janczewski created a tight ensemble work that featured dynamic duets for Sam Feipel and Eve Schulte, and Justin Leaf and Melanie Verna, along with brief solos for each. The dance contains the large, athletic movement that characterizes Janczewski's signature style, but injected a welcome level of textured subtlety and nuance that has been absent in his modern choreography. His own company, Arena Dances, will perform next weekend at the Southern Theater.

Choreography comes less easily to Houlton. Her strong concepts benefit from decent ensemble patterns whose flow often is interrupted by awkward movement and phrasing for duets and trios. Point of Departure, her new ballet set to Haydn's Symphony No. 45, introduced a sharp and angular vocabulary that repeated and became more rounded and fluid over the course of the four movements as she connected more fully with the music's whimsy and humor. The company's three women, particularly Verna, smiled and moved gracefully in this showcase for the company's seven dancers. The men, however, were pressed to keep pace and to own the sometimes inorganic movement. An exception was Maxamillian Neubauer's solo turn in the last section when moments of personality emerged. Overall, a pleasant 30 minutes of dancing.

The choreography of Lynne Taylor-Corbett is a frequent choice for many artistic directors who came of age as dancers during the 1970s and 1980s. Her Appearances, created for the Atlanta Ballet in 1984, juxtaposed gestures and imagery that loomed large against the cool jazz music of Pat Metheny with a smooth movement texture, not unlike good yogurt! It was danced cleanly by Verna, Schulte, Leaf, Feipel, Justin Marie Miller, and Abdo Sayegh.

Excerpts from two other ballets were performed expertly by guest artists Kaitlyn Gilliland and Ask la Cour. If one must see the Act 2 pas de deux from Swan Lake yet again, it should be performed with the high level of precision and effortless partnering displayed by these members of the New York City Ballet. While technically masterful, I found their performance cold and passionless, a view my companion did not share. On the other hand, there was no dispute about the passionate commitment that coursed through the duet from Agon, George Balanchine's neoclassic classic from 1957. Gilliland and la Cour danced it exquisitely, providing the evening's artistic highpoint.

Unlike their counterparts in theater and music who enjoy larger and more consistently loyal audiences for their work, many dancemakers and dance organizations eschew the use of program notes to explain what they are about. Not so with Minnesota Dance Theatre for these performances; let us hope their inclusion continues and inspires others.

Like a good many dance organizations, Minnesota Dance Theatre's persona could benefit from a scouring of its marketing materials to remove misnomers such as "groundbreaking," "extreme," and "daring." Along with quotations from long-dead critics who have not seen the current company and its work, these should be replaced with straightforward descriptors and more contemporary commentary.

The performances this weekend were the first for dance presented at The Lab Theater which opened last month under the direction of Mary Kelley Leer. As the former empress of Ruby's Cabaret from 1985 to 1992, Leer helped birth Moore by Four, Ballet of the Dolls, and many others. The Lab's limestone brick walls and cavernous space lend the enterprise a stronger air of flexibility and solidity than did Ruby's various venues. Going forward, however, more than one ticket seller will be needed to accomodate the 350 guests who will flock to the new venue's more popular attractions; it is not acceptable for a program to begin 11 minutes past the posted curtain time.

Minnesota Dance Theatre's fall performances continue, Oct. 18 at 7pm and Oct. 19 at 2pm, at The Lab Theater, 700 North 1st Street, Minneapolis. 612.338.0627 or

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