Saturday, May 22, 2010

Review: "Renovate" choreographers' evening at the Ritz

Minneapolis, Minnesota

"Renovate," the 3rd Annual Choreographers' Evening presented by the Ritz Theater, May 20-22, held together as a cohesive and engaging entertainment, even as it showcased a variety of talents and dance forms ranging from ballet to post modern. As she did twice previously, North Dakota native Lisa Conlin, a member of the Ballet of the Dolls, curated the lineup of 12 dance works for 16 dancers, with advisory assistance this year from Mariusz Olszewski and Vanessa Voskuil. The major aim of "Renovate" is to introduce and highlight new choreography and new choreographers – or both – along with the dancers who perform their work, by giving them a stage, publicity, and an audience.

This year's effort was the best and most satisfying such presentation of multiple artists that I have seen in years. Collectively, the evening included some of the best dances I have seen all year.

The top of the program began with demonstrations of dance basics as choreographer and soloist Elizabeth Bergman, attired in black leotard with spaghetti straps, opened "I don't feel it is necessary to know exactly what I mean" while standing in ballet's first position enveloped in a pool of downward white light. From that humble beginning, Bergman moved through a series of balletic poses and phrases, accented by occasional distortions of limb and line. Her music mix from GoGoo and Aphex Twins sounded like a ticking toy clock accompanied by a drone-like background of distant, electronic church bells. Bergman is a Nebraska native who received an MFA degree in dance from the University of Iowa.

Cade Holmseth, a graduate in dance from the University of Minnesota, has performed with several Minnesota companies and was cast by a number of "Renovate" choreographers in 2009 and 2010. I do not recall seeing his choreography in the past. However, based on "Just One More," his solo work for Brian Evans, we should encourage Holmseth to continue developing what could be a promising dance voice. A barefoot Evans cut a distinctive figure with his springy mop of black hair, white shirt, and gray suit coat and slacks. Moving athletically against a musical background from Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," Evans addressed the audience with personality-plus, offering to be any kind of friend that one of any persuasion might need or want: from cute, romantic, and sensitive to rugged and rough-around-the-edges.

One would not be entirely wrong in characterizing this year's "Renovate" as The Brian Evans Show. It was impossible to miss his charismatic presence in the five works in which he danced. A graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, Evans is completing his third season as a member of the Stuart Pimsler Dance Theatre. As a performer who has come into his own, he also appeared in the 2009 "Renovate" dances by Jim Lieberthal, Marciano Silva dos Santos, and Julie Warder.

Terpsichore, the ancient Greek muse of dance, received a solid work-out in a duet choreographed by Taja Will for herself and Blake Nellis. The title, "Terpsichore Told Us to: 23 gestures, 11 poses, 2 solos, and 1 duet," provided an accurate description of the dance. Will, who was born in Chile, raised in Iowa, and attended Luther College, works with structured improvisation, and has performed with Body Cartography, Miguel Gutierrez, and Cathy Wright. Her instant work drew its theme from the neuroscience of dreams and served up an exceedingly fine and compelling improvisational performance by both dancers. Both performers wore basic black, she with red accents and he with yellow. From separate pools of downstage light, two soloists responded to irregular and staccato recorded directives to fall, jump, pose, point, stomp, lunge, sit, shimmy, stir, kneel, spiral, grasp, etc., before continuing the movements as a duet at center stage and again as soloists. As the movement accelerated, the voiced directives dissolved into an electronic score from which emerged a full-blown dance of sustained intensity. Nellis performed in April at Northeast Community Lutheran Church with Tracy Vacura, and has taught improvisation at Zenon Dance School.

Years ago, John Munger presented "An Evening of Classical Modern Dance." It remains highlighted in memory as a delightful and contemplative entertainment. While his dances always have been inhabited by idiosyncratic characters and personalities, each clearly drawn, his recent efforts, such as his "Nutbuster" solo at the Bryant-Lake Bowl last December, depict a darker element missing from his earlier work. So it is with "Wrath," accompanied by music from David Byrne. Munger moves with an enviable agility that belies his status as a sexagenarian. He described "Wrath" on a recent Facebook post as "watching somebody being dead serious about being angry about who knows what." Munger founded and directs the Third Rabbit Dance Ensemble, teaches at Zenon Dance School, and directs research for Dance/USA.

If one underlying factor allowed Denise Armstead to perform scores of choreographic styles and personalities during her 20 years as a member of the Zenon Dance Company, one might suspect it was release technique. It seems also to have played a role in her work as a choreographer since forming DAdance in 2007. I last saw Armstead dance in the visual arts gallery of the Burnsville Performing Arts Center in July 2009. Then, as now – in excerpts from "In Between-Between Places" – her angular vocabulary hints at the emergence of a distinctive style and voice. In this quartet for herself, Evans, Holmseth, and Sharon Picasso, Armstead displays a talent for choreographing whole movements or sections of dancing, but not necessarily for their ordering and grouping. The overall work felt disjointed. This was my first time seeing Picasso, who holds a dance and choreography degree from the Boston Conservatory.

Minnesotans have been lucky to have in their midst Alanna Morris, a graduate of the Juilliard School, as a two-year member of TU Dance. In "Dreams: A Solo," a work in progress, the Brooklyn native dances "for all who dream of something better" to sounds of So Percussion, Zaire school children, and excerpts from Martin Luther King speeches. A straw sun hat, red umbrella, and orange dress were perfect accessories. One looks forward to the completed work.

Just as time and effort often can shape the development of an artist's work, so it can influence the perspective of individual and collective members of an audience. The first time I encountered Jaime Carrera in November 2007, he was standing naked, center stage at the Walker Art Center, with waist-length hair that moved as his head tilted back-and-forth. I still don't know what that was about. I thought that "Frontera," his solo offering in the 2009 "Renovate" program, was coherent but weakened by its attempt to include too many ideas and elements. This time, to my eye, he has it together. "Madurez," using music of Final Fantasy, celebrated the resourcefulness and determination of artists who stay connected to the creativity of their childhoods. Carrera brought the house down in his lime green t-shirt, black denim shorts, black towel super hero cape, newspaper pirate's hat, and cardboard sword. Carrera hails from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, by way of Kansas City and Chicago.

When Jennifer Ilse and Paul Herwig, co-artistic directors of Off-Leash Area, presented "The Jury" at The Red Eye earlier this year, the buzz was incredible. So was the 75-minute show, based on a murder trial for which Ilse served as a juror. An excerpt, "Love Triangle," featured Ilse (red tank top, blue denim cutoffs), Evans (white t-shirt, green khakis), and Bryan Gerber (white tank top, blue Levis), all of whom appeared in the earlier, full production. Set to sound by Reid Kruger and text by Max Sparber, the dancing was, simply, hot. Compelling. Unnerving. Gerber, a dance graduate from Minnesota State University, Mankato, is a member of Ballet of the Dolls; he presented a solo work for "Renovate" in 2009, and appeared earlier this month as Wolf in the Actors Theater of Minnesota production of "Bent."

After the show, friends and I asked each other, "Who are these people, and where have they been all our lives?" These people would be the dancers Angharad Davies and Alex Grant, who performed "Security," the most cogent work of the evening, choreographed by Davies. Start with a quote from Cary Grant: "I get up in the morning, go to bed at night, and occupy myself as best I can in between." Add the dark, drop-dead gorgeous looks of both performers. Add for each the buttoned-down uniform of security guards: white shirts, black ties and slacks, brown shoes with laces, and, for him, a slight 5-o'clock shadow. Provide a backdrop of stacks of used, styrofoam coffee cups. Mix-in the mad and endless stirring of coffee in cups to raise walls of security and ward off reality. Infuse focused and committed pedestrian movement to get through a few hours of the day. Underlie it with charming, sublimated and unrequited passion that leads to one conclusion: if they won't jump each other out of their boredom, someone from the audience surely will. All I know about Davies is that she holds an MFA degree in dance from the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City and moved to Minneapolis from Berlin. Don't know anything about Grant. I want much more of both. 

Julie Warder, who began dancing with Myron Johnson at the Children's Theatre Company School, has presented choreography in three rounds of "Renovate." In 2009, her "Jammin'" was awarded the evening's closing slot; but for the competitiveness of this year's program, so might have been "Abandon Me," her entry as choreographer/director for 2010. Her placement, once removed from penultimate, hurt not a bit, however. "Abandon Me," with its examination of paternal legacies among generations, set to Kirk Franklin's music, provided an emotional tour de force for Evans (proof positive of his ability at barrel turns) in front of Mark Hanson's haunting videography. The work of Kortland Jackson, who choreographed the Krump (U.S. street) dance, will be featured in the Hip Hop Choreographers' Evening at Patrick's Cabaret, June 18-20.

To my regret, I have little recollection of Erin Drummond and her solo performance, "Rebeca Eats Dust," set to music by Chuck Jonkey. Her placement before the closer, and following all that preceded, set her up for perceptual obscurity. After dancing for Ballet Arts Minnesota from the age of eight and attending Columbia University, she deserves another, better chance.

One word, "brilliant," describes the excerpt from "A Word With You Dear," choreographed by Kari Mosel. Performing to spoken text, Evans, Mosel, Holmseth, and Kathryn Jacobs portray two halves of the same couple – one communicating verbally, the other physically – at "the root moment in a relationship when it is discovered if you love enough to let go." Mosel comes originally from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and holds a BFA from the University of Minnesota. She has danced with Shapiro and Smith Dance and Stuart Pimsler Dance Theatre.


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