Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review: Zenon Dance Company at the Ritz Theater

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Given the depth and breadth of dance-making in the Twin Cities, one expects and takes for granted that dances choreographed here for the concert stage usually will be good, if not very good. So it has been since the start of the current performance season in September. What has been remarkable to my eye over the last three months, however, is the absence of truly compelling choreography: work that cannot – should not – be missed and might need to be seen to be believed.

The 27th fall concerts of Minnesota's Zenon Dance Company, which opened at the Ritz Theater, Nov. 19, crystallized this dawning realization but did not prompt it. The programs of Ananya Dance Theatre, Zorongo Flamenco Dance Theatre, Ballet of the Dolls, Minnesota Dance Theatre, James Sewell Ballet, Arena Dances, and Zenon certainly have displayed strong choreographic competence and generally strong dancing with much to like, particularly the dancing. All, however, left me wanting – je ne sais quoi.

That may simply reflect the cycle of the creative zeitgeist – or the current settings on my perceptual filters.

Zenon's show opened with the premiere of "The Laws of Falling Bodies," a contemporary work for seven dancers by Sydney Skybetter and his first commission for the company. I was anxious to see his work for the first time, even if the music for this dance was an electronic score by Jonny Greenwood instead of the more elegiac sounding selections (e.g., Dvorák, Schumann, Arvo Part) I had read about for some of Skybetter's earlier creations. The man can create visually and emotionally arresting dances (see his website), especially "Near Abroad" from 2008. Unfortunately, "Falling Bodies" is not one of them, particularly in its first four minutes. The work appears at first to be a study of people using each other and saving themselves from each other, all while trying to distance themselves from each other. Over time, it evolves into a picture of people holding up the most fragile or endangered among them, but one wonders why we should care and where the rest of the story went.

With a Master's Degree in dance performance and choreography from New York University, and performance credits with the likes of Christopher Williams, Larry Keigwin, Kun-Yang Lin, Gus Solomons jr, and others, Skybetter's is one of the most interesting emergent voices at work these days. Zenon's artistic director, Linda Andrews, would do very well to invite him back to secure another new work – perhaps a half-evening effort for the 2011 opening of the Minnesota Shubert Center.

Skybetter and his company will perform in January at Joyce SoHo and the Skirball Center during the APAP Conference in New York.

A second premiere, "Filament," is a solo work created by Emilie Plauché Flink, artistic associate of Minnesota's Black Label Movement. The dance begins in silence, then is joined by the electronic strings of "Luna" from the "Touch It" CD by the Minneapolis-based Jelloslave. Although the movement has a minimalist feel, the impact of its expression by Tamara Ober was anything but as she threw herself about the stage, at times appearing to pedal an invisible bicycle while supine. Mary Ann Bradley will dance the role Nov. 27-29.

Flink's artistic pedigree includes a BFA degree in dance from the Juilliard School, 11 years of performance with the Limón Dance Company, and performances for Annabelle Gamson and Martha Clark. She also worked briefly for the Minnesota Crafts Council, an undertaking that helped inspire her to create sculpture and furniture from found/cast-off objects.

This latter impulse no doubt provided a seed for the metallic-looking set piece for "Filament," designed by Annie Katsura Rollins. Part oversized beehive, and part cave lined with brass, Aztec dishware, the set lived in shadows and invested the proceedings with a cocoon-like refuge.

In Mitch Albom's 2004 book, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," Eddie, the principal character, encounters five individuals after dying in an accident in his old age. One of these is Marguerite, his long-dead wife, who when he sees her is handing out chocolates at a wedding "for the bitter and the sweet." Eddie, who had loved her from the moment they met and never cared for anyone else as much, tells her how much he has missed her. "Lost love," she consoles him, "is still love."

A similar theme is at work in a third Zenon premiere, "Here, now that you are gone..." Set in three sections to music by Charlie Byrd, Toots Thielemans, and Stéphane Grappelli, the jazz duet, danced beautifully and buoyantly by Gregory Waletski and Bradley, recalls "his" love and the instances of their life together. According to program notes, as he is drawn into his memories he must decide either to remain in the past or to continue on.

The choreography by Judith James Ries, a former principal dancer for Danny Buraczeski's JAZZDANCE, acquaints us with the memory in the first segment, sands off any rough edges that may have informed the past relationship in the second, and leaves us to wonder in the third whether the memory or Waletski will let go first. Ultimately, Bradley, as the memory, exits stage right while Waletski remains in reverie stage left. My bet: he continues on but does not move on.

In addition to teaching at the Saint Paul Conservatory for Performing Arts, Hamline University, and Zenon Dance School, one of Ries's next projects will be creating choreography for Park Square Theatre's 2010 production of "Rock and Roll."

Two repertory works completed the Zenon program.

"Not From Texas," looking like three pieces of cotton candy at the Texas State Fair, entertains without audience effort. Amazingly for Zenon, however, on Nov. 20 the four men appeared to mark the opening quartet with little authentic personality in what should have been a raucous stemwinder to Lyle Lovett's "Long Tall Texan." The succeeding sections, also to Lovett, looked more taut and together, especially the middle duet by Bradley and Waletski. The wife-husband team of Megan McClellan and Brian Sostek provided the whimsical choreography that debuted earlier this year.

"Booba," an odd set of excerpts from a 2008 work by Andrea Miller, closed the show, first with a showcase for six dancers, followed by a duet of Bryan Godbout and Leslie O'Neill. Although the most structurally strong part of the evening, the group work lacked interest, particularly the pseudo-shimmying across the stage to the rhythmic music by Balkan Beat Box. Godbout and O'Neill provided a picture-pleasing finish to the most colorful (costume-wise) and brightly lit dance of the evening.

Zenon Dance Company's 27th fall concerts will continue, Fri-Sun, Nov. 27-29, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis. For tickets call 612.436.1129.


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