'Dancelucent' at University of Michigan a terrific sampler of modern dance
Four works—by faculty choreographers Bill DeYoung, Peter Sparling and Robin Wilson, and by guest choreographer Lucinda Childs—constitute this well-conceived show, with artistic direction by faculty member Judy Rice. It’s a pretty fantastic modern-dance sampler, running just about an hour and a half long and building admirably to a stunning climax with Childs’ “Dance #1,” to music of Philip Glass.
Childs and Glass visited Ann Arbor—in person and on stage—a few weeks back with their seminal “Einstein on the Beach,” directed by Robert Wilson. If that production was magnificent, so, too, was this student performance of “Dance #1,” part of a larger Childs work, “Dance,” from 1979. The piece was restaged for the U-M dancers by Ty Boomershine and Katie Dorn.
The 20 minutes of “Dance #1” are breathless—for the eight women dancing—and breathtaking for the audience. To Glass’ pulsing, humming score, the dancers, clad in white, emerge from the wings—in twos, then fours, then more—to skim the stage in low-flying steps. The stage is black, and they cross directly from wing to wing—no angles—like tracers in a night sky. At first they cross only in one direction, facing mostly forward, and at times the stage is empty between crossings. But gradually, they begin to enter from both sides, and the tempo of their entrances builds, as do the patterns, the halts for a brief directional reversal, and the intersections of dancers. The illumination (lighting here is by Beverly Emmons) shifts periodically, casting them in red or orange. It’s an amazing moment when the first of the women shifts from a wing-to-wing cross of the stage to a diagonal cross, defying our expectations.
Childs’ choreography is mesmerizing, but so was the dancing here, by Lynsey Colden, Tehillah Frederick, Jessica Trepka Hoyt, Jennifer LaFreniere, Katy Telfer, Deanna Tomasetta, Alexis Turner and Morgan Wallace. Their clean technique, their beautiful upper body carriage and their elegant use of arms and head were thrilling. So was their stamina—they were as clear and buoyant at this non-stop dance’s end as in the beginning.
The dancers in Robin Wilson’s “Lightmotifs” also bring her new dance, a tripartite meditation on life and afterlife, filled with whimsy and great beauty and a lot of very interesting music, to a glowing conclusion. Here the lighting, as in the rest of the concert, is by the dance department’s longtime whiz Mary Cole, who bathes the dancers, clad in flowing pastels by the shows costume designer, Suzanne Young, in a sort of suffusing radiance—no matter what color she puts behind them.
In the dance’s final section, “Celebrating Light,” the dancers are a gospel choir on the move, whipping up a joyous storm of praise as an actual gospel choir sings “Let all the People Praise Him.” They whirl against a jade green background that seems to grow ever brighter—but it’s the movement creating the glow, till the very end when the cyclorama turns new-dawn pink, having finally caught up with the dancers’ uplifting energy.
In the program’s first half, faculty members DeYoung and Sparling brought very different perspectives to “Dancelucent.” DeYoung turned to the lightness (and darkness) of rock ‘n’ roll for “Been a Long Time,” a dance suite for an ensemble of nine woman and a lone man (the only one in the whole show, Kula Batangan) set to some pretty great hits by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and the Doors.
Made a few years back for the Laurie Eisenhower Dance Company, “Been a Long Time” would have profited from a stronger choreographic point of view and stronger dancing by the students. Transitions between steps were weak and a little sluggish; this dance, very much a jazzy, strut-your-stuff kind of piece with a tawdry undercurrent, needed way more security and selling than it showed opening night.
If DeYoung aims for something visceral in “Been a Long Time,” Sparling’s new “Forest Through the Trees” goes virtual, blending live action by 14 dancers with video images that skip around the stage in 3-D glory. The images - of rows of miniature dancers performing variations we see live on stage; of fragments of a Braque painting that dance their own animated dance—seem to play as foreground and background. And fragments are what we hear, too—against music with an Indonesian cast by Frank Pahl and Thollem McDonas—as Annette Masson channels Gertrude Stein, reading from her “The Making of Americans.”
Masson’s Stein is neatly done, though Stein’s experimental repetitions can be grating. But fragmenting, enlarging and shrinking—of text, movement and video—seem the point here, and the melding of all three is expert and entertaining.
"Dancelucent" continues through Sunday. For more information, see the preview article.