Guest blogger Ellen Chenoweth is an arts writer and administrator based in Washington, DC. She maintains a blog at Widening the I and received her M.A. in Dance from Texas Woman’s University in 2009.
Contemporary dance has a hard time with happy. Sometimes you’ll see movement that could be cheery, but the dancers are performing it with completely blank faces, perfectly devoid of emotion. Or, even more painful to witness, the dancers will revert to studio dance training from childhood and display a wide pasted-on smile, as if showing teeth equals happiness. Which is why it was especially gratifying to see undergraduates from the University of North Texas perform renowned postmodern choreographer Bebe Miller’s work Blessed with what read as pure and sincere bliss. If you can imagine a giant jumping jack of joy, extending throughout the whole body and elevating you from the ground, you’ll have a good starting place for imagining the work. The stage was bathed in a warm, red light as the cast of six women and two men bounded around the stage to the gospel music of the Australian group Cafe of the Gate of Salvation. Ideas of community were explored as dancers provided perches for each other on their bodies, slapped their thighs, and propelled themselves backwards with glee. Standout performers included Emily McNabb, who was so radiant I think she might actually have a light source in her body, and Tina Jefferson, who wasn’t afraid to put her own individual stamp on the movements. Sarah Gamblin, a former Bebe Miller company dancer, reconstructed the work and Teresa Cooper served as rehearsal director.
Choking the Earth? Just Take Off Those Clothes and Join the Water in D-Flat, choreographed by Shelley Cushman, provided a more sobering note and opened with a tableux of trash. The trash slowly came into focus as the lights came up and the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” played as one leg suddenly splayed from a creature in a trash bag. The dancers were oddly restrained as they threw newspaper-trash around the stage. The booty seemed to be the focal body point throughout the work: the dancers wore white unitards that covered their whole bodies with blue blazers accentuating the butt. Choking the Earth offered an overload for the senses, between the trash on the stage, the flock of white dancer-birds, the soundscore filled with aural flotsam and jetsam, and a video projection of indiscriminate bits of nature scenery. The gorgeous ending tied some of these strands together, as the video projection finally linked with the movement as the dancers transformed the trash into an ocean, and they became waves that were part of the sea, throwing up a handful of newspapers as the tide rolled out. The sounds of the newspapers being thrown were eerily reminiscent of the sound of ocean waves, conjuring up some apocalyptic imagery.
Watching choreographer Ellie Leonhardt’s offering Not WithStanding (Part I and II) felt like being transported to an alien land where women were frozen at will and often treated as objects to be carried, draped, placed, and re-arranged. Seven female dancers wore frocks of blue or green and shimmery black, giving a vaguely science fiction atmosphere. The ethereal solo cello music composed by Kaija Saariaho and solemn poetry recitation in French added to the sense of being in a strange environment. The pace was slow but never boring; instead all of the stillness meant that to see the dancers spring into viscous movement was all the more satisfying. These beings had their own language to communicate with each other, which was a softly whispered shoo-shoo as a thread through the piece. The lighting design by Adam Chamberlin did wonders, as I found myself continuing to marvel at the stage as a whole. As the piece worked into its climax, there was a dizzying amount of pairings and re-pairings, sudden disappearances and reappearances. I don’t know who these women warriors were, with arms that could transform into pincers, but I’m glad to have witnessed them.
Alien landscapes were also invoked with Mary Lynn Babcock’s Eclipse Project Part II as images from the cosmos were projected on two large rectangular orbs that dominated the stage. Three dancers played among the objects, two would peer from the right as one would dash out from the left. The lines created by the women’s arms would echo the geometry of the objects and carefully crooked legs were left like a question mark as the dancers balanced on their shoulders. In the end, the dancers left the stage completely for long seconds and the audience was left to ponder the visions of space before the dancers came back for one last dash against a blackened stage in a breathtaking moment.
The show title, “Closer to the Earth and Sky,” promised to explore the tension between the two directional pulls. But on balance, after visiting extraordinary worlds and being uplifted and moved to tears by Blessed, I think the sky won this one. The show will be performed April 30 at 8:00 pm, May 1 at 8:00 pm and May 2 at 2:30 pm at the University Theater in the RTFP Building on the campus of the University of North Texas.