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Posted on Sun, Jun 10, 2012 : 8:21 a.m.

Review: 'Dancing Downtown Ann Arbor'

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett

Check out a photo gallery from the production here.

It had to look odd. It had to look wonderful.

An audience camped out on little stools in the alley behind the former Kline’s Department Store on Main Street on a warm Saturday night. Dancers in black running shorts and tights and sneakers, each wearing one bright glove, the better to semaphore and signal as they strutted forward and retreated back along the asphalt path from Washington Street.

“Could you tell me what’s going on?” an onlooker inquired as the whole band, led by “ushers” with flags held high, spilled out onto the street to relocate westward toward South Ashley Street.

What was going on was “Corsets, Grains & Greenways: Dancing Downtown Ann Arbor,” but we didn’t tell her that. We just smiled and omitted the mouthful of a title, and said there was a whole lot of dancing going on, courtesy of Ann Arbor Dance Works, dancing that celebrated the city and landmarks past, present and future.

Maybe she tagged along to see more of the wonderful dancing, the clever choreography, smart and witty, artful and artless, that made up this immaculately planned event.

Saturday was the last of three performances of “Corsets, Grains & Greenways,” presented by AADW, the resident professional company of the University of Michigan Dance Department. The company (and dancers from Community High School’s Dance Body—our alley heroes and heroines) gave the audience, paying and pick-up, a terpsichorean tour of downtown, following a four-block route that started in the historic Pratt Block (once Kline’s and before that a corset factory and a hardware store) and ended in a parking lot opposite the Ann Arbor Y that might someday be an anchor park for the proposed Allen Creek Greenway.

At each stop, and en route, dancers evoked history or hilarity or mystery, and choreographers—Jessica Fogel; fellow faculty member Robin Wilson; guests Marly Spieser-Schneider, Adesola Akinleye and Monica Bill Barnes—found novel and fascinating ways to connect dancer and site.

Connection was a theme throughout the evening, both choreographically and practically: the event came to fruition with the active participation of community partners like the Allen Creek Greenway Conservancy; the WSG Gallery (with its featured artists); Downtown Home & Garden; the Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale; and Community High School’s Dance Body.

The gallery, in the Pratt Block, was the first stop and the setting for Fogel’s “Pratt Block Preludes,” little four-minute solos and duets, at six “stations,” that the (paying) audience rotated through in pre-assigned clots. The vignettes were little haikus evoking the building’s mercantile history—corsets, corsets everywhere, hardware, too, in stays that a dancer tossed into a metal pail—by turns poetic, athletic and analytic. We saw the dancers through plate glass from outside the building, through plate glass inside, gazing into the gallery from the foyer. We saw them down stairwells and peering down onto a lower level. In other words, we were voyeurs, gazing at corseted (and uncorseted) female bodies, contemplating them, admiring them, considering them, with Fogel’s sharp eye, against and with the backdrop of the figurative paintings by Nora Venturelli and the sculpture of Norma Penchansky-Glasser. And just as in Venturelli’s paintings, the relationship between figure and ground is brought forward brilliantly in Fogel’s work here. (Works on display by WSG artists Barbara Brown, Adrienne Kaplan and Valerie Mann also responded to the building’s history.) And of course, depending on which of the six stations formed a start or a finish for each group, the experience of the whole would have been different. It would have been fun to compare notes.

Out on the street, the dancing made good on the super start of Fogel’s “Preludes.” Choreographer Spieser-Schneider’s “This Unfolds” did just that in the Kline’s Alley, making the most of the long narrow space, with the audience gazing down it like spectators at a bowling tourney. Then there was more fun along the way to our next destination (the Downtown Home & Garden parking lot): Akinleye, like Fogel, made us think about connection and borders. She tied dancers to trees with streamers they manipulated; positioned them in store fronts where they scribbled on their bodies and the windows with marker (as if to say, where do I end and where does it start?); linked them to lampposts with stretchy jersey that allowed them to partner themselves into fabulous backbends.

And how much fun awaited at Downtown Home & Garden, where Barnes’ “Wall Flowers” offered up a punningly riotous garden of giggly girls, in brightest satiny frocks, dancing the night away on the parking lot wall and in the lot itself, to a 1980s party sound mix. It’s hard to resist paraphrasing the Lionel Richie “Angel” lyrics they danced to: they were our angels, our miracle, all we needed tonight.

But there was still more to come. Though no train came down the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks, as it apparently did Friday evening, Wilson’s “Down by the Tracks,” for a sextet of girl gandy dancers, was evocative still. It was especially beautiful when the dancers, to the accompaniment of spirituals sung by the Our Own Thing Chorale, forsook their even spacing in pairs to race away from the audience watching by the tracks on Liberty Street, just west of First Street. Waving their flags, they headed on south down the track, a train whose cars have hooked together for the journey. Meanwhile, automobiles passed (in the lane of Liberty not occupied by the chorale), a runner flew by in red, walkers passed through the dancers. It was a wonderful erasure of boundaries between performer and audience, stage and street. We’re all movers, after all.

And then, in the parking lot that may become a park, forget the -ing, the chorale sang again, and dancers rippled wide banners of verdant green—a symbol of what might be next time Ann Arbor Dance Works takes to the streets. As Fogel said to start the evening, if we dance it, it just might come.