Master Choreographers | Marissa Bottino (Feb. 2012)

Master Choreographers
Empie Theater
Muhlenberg College

By Marissa Bottino


Muhlenberg College’s Master Choreographers 2012 reminds us that dance is, and should be, relevant and alive in our society. Enthusiastic audience response created such a buzz, one could not help but marvel at how viscerally poignant the language of the moving body can be. On the stage of Empie Theatre in Baker Center for the Arts, February 9th - 11th 2012, the Muhlenberg College Department of Dance presented its 8th annual eclectic collection of artistic vision in Master Choreographers. Beyond communicating with pragmatic sensations, these works employ suggestive abstraction and empathic representation as intelligent artistic tools.


In Corrie Franz Cowart’s Outlines, classical Bach music, Concerto for Two Harpsicords, Strings and Continuo in C Minor, supports the swing between sweeping and ridged straight-lined patterns. A large cast, dressed in grey pants and shirts overlaid with sheer red cape-like coats, emerges in a sweeping visualization of lines that release into curves. The dancers walk in slow unison from upstage to down, focus stage right, not acknowledging the single body left out of the line. The lights dim, and the line moves past the individual. Outlines is a strikingly beautiful vision, embodying ideas contained by or transcendent of the defining outlines of classical form.


An alternating cast of principals and corps dancers presented Deborah Wingert’s & Marisa Cerveris’ restaging of George Balanchine’s Valse Fantaisie (1967). The cast welcomed the talents of Trey Mauldwin, a student guest from the ballet program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Delicate romantic tutus (design, ByMarisa) calm Balanchine’s choreography in its demand of energy, speed, fast footwork and precise allegro. Both principal dancers, Sarah Biren, with her clarity, and Barri DeFransisci, with her exuberance, demonstrate the strength required for Balanchine’s technique. A restaged work feels nostalgic, yet keeps classical ballet technique and notions of classicism’s continual growth in conversation with contemporary works.


Sydney Skybetter’s Halcyon (2009) feels wise through the cooperation of all its elements. Beautifully simple movement, synthesized string music (“Canção Verdes Anos,” Carlos Paredes and “La Muerte Chiquita,” Enrique Rangel, arranged and performed by the Kronos Quartet), gray shades of costuming, and dim lighting come together to create a cohesive point of view. Six dancers are arranged in straight lines, each dancer within a frame of light. A phrase of accented movement repeats. A distinct movement catches the eye as they bring their hands to their heads, elbows on the diagonal as if putting on a hat. The arms accent open. The bodies, flat as boards, lean backwards into space, only to re-gather in new spaces. The phrase repeats in different groups, facings, patterns, and partnering as if re-enacting or remembering this imprinted moment within a different moment in time.       


Thursday, February 9, 2012

In Against the Wall, a jazz number by Dorrell Martin, we see a statement about balancing the pressures of Wall Street, not to mention the gender dynamics. It displays turns, jumps, and an assisted lift in which the entire cast flips one dancer without her ever touching the ground – talk about being on top of the business world! The girls, dressed in suits with hair slicked back, lie on the stage. A man balances on one foot. Unable to balance, he jumps high in the air and lands to illuminate a bright white light. “Good Evening Mrs. Magpie” by Radiohead begins to pulse and the lyrics, “You’ve got some nerve” initiate purposeful, cool walks in a straight line across the stage.The man ends on the ground as shadows ensue; the girls in suits stand chest out and dominant above him.

Another statement surfaces in Olase Freeman’s Eating the Other. Bodies in purple outfits act as people, sometimes as perches, and sometimes as threats or obstacles. Simple movement with complicated music choices (“My Country,” Tune-Yards, “Rise,” Seun Kuti, “Bizness,” “Hitari,” and “Real Live Flesh,” Tune-Yards, “Repetition,” TV On The Radio, and “Gangsta,” Tune-Yards) address complex issues of national and personal existence. Bodies interact without recognition or empathy. A pantomime gun action against the red, white, and blue-lit backdrop serves as a cathartic mirror. The dancers perform with intention - abstract, yet present. The most provocative image is the ending, in which the words “we all fall down” echo. Each dancer latches onto another’s back to be carried off into the darkness.


Heidi Cruz-Austin’s Maidens in Tow is beauty for beauty’s sake. Nude leotards and red light match high gazes, lifted chests, and picturesque poses. Dancers run on stage, led by floating arms raised at the sides on each strand of Violin Concerto, the third movement, by Philip Glass.  Like calm bursts of energy, the dancers are constantly in flight, running to the next moments of suspended image or formation. The intensity of the first section, with its outward quirks melts into “Passagalia for Solo Violin,” by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Patterns of beautiful rippling unfold across the stage. Deep fourth position lunges and quick turns amount to the final droning note held onto by a single dancer in a back attitude layout on pointe.


Always the show stopping finale, Shelley Oliver’s tap number, Invitation * Affirmation * Celebration is nothing short of a celebration. The audience’s unbridled claps and cheers certainly affirmed that! The energy Shelley’s live band (arranged by David Leonhardt – piano; Matthew Parish – bass; Paul Wells – drums) brings to the stage is indescribable. A large cast dressed in black and pink classy outfits heightens the social excitement. Fast-moving feet and crisp rhythms create a partnership between the music and the dancers, especially in Jeremy Arnold’s improvised solo. The feel of understanding through dance, initiated by the dancers’ encouragement of presence was a great way to close the show because Master Choreographers is more than a display of dance, it is an invitation to engage in and celebrate all that we have to learn and experience through dance.