Magic Of The Dance Review Essay

January 2015

Tango Buenos Aires

Presented by Dance St. Louis

Touhill Performing Arts Center

Ran Jan 30 and 31, 2015

Reviewed by Isabelle Heidbreder and David Mount

The touring history of the dance company Tango Buenos Aires speaks volumes for the level of performance one can expect from this very talented group of dancers, musicians and vocalists. Given the countries they’ve visited, it is obvious the draw this dance form extends well beyond its’ origins in Argentina and Hispanic culture. If you’ve not seen Tango Buenos Aires, you should make the commitment to go see them on their next visit to St. Louis… or even Chicago! It will be worth the drive.

The performers comprise a wide range of ages and yet some are surprisingly young when one considers the difficulty of this dance form. Indeed, two of the musicians, both bandoneon players were truly amazing artists, but to be fair, each of the band members played remarkable solos at one point or another. While one could watch this performance purely for the dance, the two acts, comprised of 25 separate numbers putting this intense and passionate dance form in the spotlight, were aptly applied to the life story of Eva Perón. The number of variations on the basic ballroom dance-class tango step is mind-numbing, limited only by one's imagination and skill!

Without a doubt though, it is the extreme precision and complexity of the couples’ legs weaving around and within those of their partner that make this dance stand out for me especially when performed at tempo vivacissimo! Blend that with the sensuality of entwined bodies, swirling hemlines and limbs, hips and lips, lifts and drags and you have a delicious recipe for drama and seduction. Watch this short video clip to get just a teasing taste of this two-hour treat.

While that complexity, precision and tension is the focus of the evening -- and the audience audibly gasps in awe repeatedly throughout the performance -- one number at the end of Act I grew to be an audience favorite. While some dance is involved, “Las Boleadoras” is a surprisingly impressive choreography employing bolas, a tool of the gauchos, or Argentinian cowboys, comprised of two wooden balls attached by a rope. By rotating their wrists, the balls orbit the body of the performer, and by allowing the ball to hit the stage accompanied by toe taps, heel clicks and stomps, a variety of staccato rhythms are created. By varying the speed and orbital path, the boleadoras mesmerized the audience for several minutes. Principally a tour de force by one of the boleadoras, he accelerated the bolos to blurring speeds, the whiz of the ropes through the air was unmistakable, the artists’ hands and arms moving as precisely as the feet and legs of the tango performers, with the audience jumping to their feet in adulation.

Truly a treat for the sensual, Tango Buenos Aires was in St. Louis by popular demand and if the audience response gave Dance St. Louis a clue, they’ll be back again! If you didn’t feel the temperature rise as they heated up the stage, you couldn’t have been there.

View slide show here.

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March 2014

Motionhouse Dance Theatre

Edison Theatre, St. Louis

Ran March 21-22, 2014

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

Dance is no longer limited to the floor. The heck with the laws of gravity. Motionhouse Dance Theatre dances, leaps, slides, slithers, rolls and splats on a wall that curves to the floor. The performance Scattered is 70 minutes of non-stop action about water. A video is projected onto the curved wall — frozen water, underwater, waterfalls, swimming pools, the ocean and even what it’s like without water. Images of dry, cracked mud appear as the dancers are poised on the wall like sticky-footed geckos with the their fingers stuck in the mud cracks.

A couch appears on the video that the dancers seem to sit on. The background seems real. As the dancers scale the 10-foot curved wall, they hit the exact point that a splash occurs in the video. Although the wall looks like it’s a touchscreen reacting to the pressure of the dancers, it’s really very practiced good timing. The dancers are part of the background and the background is constantly changing. An escalator appears on the screen and the dancers run up it. Or they drop down from the top of the wall on bungee cords becoming part of the projected images. Plastic water bottles become schools of fish in the dancer’s hands as they dart in and out of the ocean -- until a water-cooler bottle comes along and scares the smaller ones away.

This is the first stop of Motionhouse’s US tour. Founded in 1988 by Kevin Finnan and Louise Richards, Motionhouse has become one of the leading dance theatre companies in the UK. It’s highly physical and strenuous dance. Some of the dancers were holding ice packs on bruised ankles during the comments at the end of the performance. Can you imagine your choreographer saying, “Okay dancers, today we are going to run up a 10-foot wall over and over and over again for 70 minutes?”

The video is created in collaboration with Logela Multimedia from the Basque region of Spain. The dancers interact with the video as it all comes together like a mosaic. You’ve probably never seen anything like this before. This is a mind-boggling show. Catch them on tour if you can.

https://edison.wustl.edu/tickets/

http://www.motionhouse.co.uk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_RpNGF_d-g

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February 2014

Diavolo

Presented by Dance St. Louis

Touhill Performing Arts Center, St. Louis

Reviewed by Isabelle Heidbreder and David Mount

Ran Feb 28 and Mar 1, 2014

Diavolo’s founder, French-born Jacques Heim, describes his distinct transformational choreography style as “architecture in motion”. By blending the repertoires of diverse dynamic physical expressions such as ballet, acrobatics, gymnastics, contemporary dance, martial arts and street dance, he and his troupe search for “the relationship between the danger of our environment and the fragility of the human body.” The motivations behind both well-conceived, and well-written pieces were no less trivial: Heim’s psycho-social intentions consider our interactions with and reactions to our physical surroundings as well as with our fellow humans. If it sounds eclectic, that was the wonderful and compelling outcome of the literally breath-taking performance of Diavolo at the Touhill on Friday night!

The conjunction of all those movement styles coupled with the collosal set pieces in the two socially non-trivial creations performed on stage, demanded near-olympic fitness and focus from the young performers. Both pieces, Transit Space and Trajectoire, required precision and high skill level on the part of the dancers to convey the message safely. It was not infrequent that one or more performers were literally flying through the air, propelled by their own muscles and aided to superhero proportions by the physics of skateboard ramps and rocking platforms that were essential to the production.

Transit Space was very clearly a strong message about our modern societal motivations, in finding ourselves and our purpose in society as a whole and our narrower personal social sphere. Researched in collaboration with skateboarders in Los Angeles, it incorporated movement and physical environment typical of that culture, but imported strong foreign influence in acrobatics, gymnastics, break dancing and capoeira, the Brazilian martial arts form. A narrative accompanied the drums-driven music, sharing with the audience the transformation of the performers from lost strangers to interdependent and collaborative partners. While tense and lacking connection between the participants at the onset of the piece, as the interactions between dancers became less distant, individual displays of skill were replaced by connectivity evidenced by collaborative movements and consequentially, an obvious playfulness that evoked a strong feeling of elatement.

More relaxed, emotional, poetic and haunting, Trajectoire’s demands on the dancers was no less demanding. Precise timing and positioning as well as physical prowess and mental focus were essential as the choreography of this piece resulted in dancers being propelled more than twenty feet by the huge half-cylinder’s boat-like rocking movement, apexing at perhaps fifteen or more feet above the stage, to be caught by as many as four fellow performers! More than once, the audience’s collective gasp could be heard above the musical score. Heim’s message in this piece focused on the need to find balance in one’s journey in life and the resilience of the individual despite serious challenges to our deepest being.

The evening was exciting and uniquely entertaining. The utilization of the large set pieces was artfully done and contributed to, rather than distracted from, the choreography and message. There is no doubt that the audience loved both pieces from the standing ovation at the finish of the night’s performance and the fervency of the applause before intermission. If you love dance, Diavolo is fascinatingly energetic and compellingly meaningful. We’d suggest that if you think dance is boring, irrelevant, and not for adrenaline junkies, the next time Diavolo comes to town, you’re in for both a very pleasant surprise and, by the time the curtain falls, a desire to experience more Diavolo!

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Diavolo

Touhill Performing Arts Center

Presented by Dance St. Louis

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

Ran Feb 28 - Mar 1, 2014

Chances are, you’ve never seen anything like Diavolo. It is truly remarkable, a very high-energy performance that refers to its distinct style as “Architecture in Motion.” It’s more like a well-oiled machine with incredible precision, timing, balance and momentum. The extremely athletic performers sometimes seem to fly through the air as they are propelled off of a structure that rolls back and forth. It’s challenging enough to be dancing on a stage but try to imagine dancing on a surface that is rocking back and forth like a ship being tossed about in the swell of large waves. With backgrounds in dance, gymnastics, tumbling, and acrobatics, the dancers are springing everywhere at once.

There were only two performances but they were both packed with plenty of punch. Transit Space implemented skateboard ramp structures that became bridges and morphed into sliding boards conveying a street scene with restless youth searching for meaning. With a soundtrack of poetic voice artists, the dancers employed wheel-less skateboards and some breakdancing, this piece rolled into a theme about feeling lost and yearning for connection to the gang. It was very energetic with every possible way of moving and using the interactive structures as the performers leaped, rolled and slid off of them. The structures varyingly functioned as sliding boards or bridges or walls or mirrors.

The second dance aptly named Trajectoire (trajectory), makes complete use of a large wooden structure which is like a boat rocking about in the waves. The rocking is created by the dancers moving from one side to the other. The timing must be impeccable, otherwise, the dancers would bump into each other as they leap and hang off the structure or roll under it as it rocks up. There was a collective gasp from the audience as it rolled backward and starts forwards again as a female dancer propelled by the movement flies through the air and lands in the arms of several other dancers on the floor. Talk about a leap of faith… She can’t even see where she’ll be hurling her body until the “boat” has rolled forwards. It was breathtaking. It ends with the smallest dancer sliding slowly out of sight as the structure is tipped up. The theme is described as “a visceral and emotional journey through the ebb and flow of the human experience as the performers struggle to find their balance on a voyage of destiny and destination.”

This company from Los Angeles was founded in 1992 by Jacques Heim, the artistic director. He was born and raised in Paris, France and has worked extensively for other companies in dance, theatre and TV including Cirque du Soleil by creating their performance KA.

It was an incredible performance. Truly mind-blowing. The performers give their all… and then some and they received much appreciation and a standing ovation.


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October 2013

An Evening with
Judy Collins

Edison Theatre, St. Louis

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

October 12, 2013

As a teenager of the 60s, I grew up listening to Judy Collins’ music. Although I don’t have any specific memories that were evoked during the concert, there is a general feeling of nostalgia for a time when the world was a vastly different place... at least to my 16-year-old mind. The question is, “can the performer, who is now 74, match the sound that she had when I listened to her album, Wildflowers, repeatedly on my rickety old turntable?” Yes, she can! Her voice isn’t as full or pure as it was 40 years ago and it gets a bit shrill when she goes for those high notes but my ears are not as good as they used to be either! For the most part, she sounds great and delivers a lovely performance.

Judy Collins looked like an angel in her white sparkly outfit, her full, long, white hair swept up on the sides and glowing from the lighting that sometimes cast a beautiful lavender hue. During the first half, she was accompanied by a pianist while she played guitar and told amusing stories in between songs about her Irish heritage and her history. I learned about her relationship with Stephen Stills that resulted in his famous song, Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. She told another story about being in a house with a group of people while a newcomer named Bob Dylan was crafting songs in the basement and the sounds came wafting up the staircase. She sang all the old favorites starting off with Both Sides Now, written by Joni Mitchell, and a very heartfelt Tambourine Man, (thank you, Bobby Dylan) followed by Helplessly Hoping by Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

After the intermission, she reappeared dressed all in black, her slender figure in skin-tight pants with high-heeled boots. It’s hard to believe she is in her 70s. Seated at the grand piano, she treated us to a very soulful Albatross,one of my personal favorites. Although Judy Collins does many songs by others such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the hauntingly beautiful Albatross is one she wrote…

And in the night the iron wheels rolling through the rain
Down the hills through the long grass to the sea
And in the dark the hard bells ringing with pain
Come away alone
Come away alone... with me.

One of her best-known songs is Send in the Clowns by Stephen Sondheim from the Broadway musical, A Little Night Music. She sang it with such sincerity, there were some misty eyes in the audience including my own.

Judy Collins is also an artist and a writer of several books such as Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music. She is charming, entertaining, and cracking jokes and telling stories while tuning her guitar. An evening with Judy Collins is a very pleasant evening indeed.




New Dance Horizons ll

Touhill Performing Arts Center

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

Runs October 4 & 5, 2013

Ah, another season of dance has begun, brought to us by Dance St. Louis. Sometimes we forget how much talent we have in our own backyard. This performance gave the opportunity for four St. Louis companies to shine. Add to that four guest choreographers taking each company in hand (and foot) to create some innovative numbers.

I’ll start with my favorite one first. Land’s Edge by MADCO, was originally choreographed by members of Pilobolus but reconstructed by Jude Woodcock. The dance begins with several couples in 1800s’ costumes that are dancing ballroom-style, but you as watch you realize that they aren’t quite normal. In fact, they look a bit like... zombies? Yes, zombies. There is a more normal-looking solitary man who is scrunching around on the floor. Suddenly, the body of a young woman, laying motionless on her back, scoots across the floor. Yes, scoots as though she were being pulled by something but you can’t see by what. Very intriguing! There is a fluidity in her but she is not moving--as though she were dead, as in having drowned. The solo guy comes over to check her out and nuzzles her as animal would sniff and move around something without using hands. Then, the zombie couples come to look. Two men (who I will call “Frick” and “Frack”) interacting with each other (almost as though they are one body) and pass around the lifeless body of the tiny female dancer. She did an outstanding job of keeping her body loose so she could be moved, lifted, and passed around. As with many Pilobolus dances, there is a great deal of balance and leverage happening. Eventually, the lifeless dancer does start to move on her own and is taken in by the zombie clan until suddenly another pair of legs appears almost off-stage (as though another body is washing ashore). This is dance theatre complete with an interesting story line and was most enjoyable. There’s so much to watch and figure out while still eliciting a feeling of observing some strange little movie. Great stuff!

Leverage Dance Theatre presented a number called Encounters With The Infinite choreographed by Nejla Yatkin of NY2Dance. A solo dancer in a huge ballroom gown with pouchy sides makes minimal movements with her arms and upper body. This is dance of mystery as dancers disappear and reappear in her huge gown or out of a pile of paper snow. The gown that has been abandoned and motionless stands up, and another dancer suddenly grows very tall, being held by two others who are hidden under the costume. How did those three dancers sneak back into the dress right after they rolled off the stage? A mystery! The dancers were accompanied by pianist Daniel Schene, slightly off-stage as he performed Lizst, Debussy and Shuman.

Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company performed One choreographed by Uri Sands from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre among others. The dance is about Ms. Henrietta Lacks, who in 1951 was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer when some of her cells were propagated for medical research without obtaining her permission. These freely-dividing mutant cells multiplied uninhibited, and grown in research laboratories around the world, became known as the "HeLa" cell line. Her immortal cells are continuing to help humankind; even the polio vaccine was tested on her cells. I guess you could say she is still among us today.

In this dance, a group of women, starts with their backs to the audience with spastic arm movements as though they were wringing their hands. As the dance progresses, there is wonderful coherence when all the dancers are moving in unison as though they are a flock of birds all moving together but there will still be one with spastic hand movements (the lone cancer cell?). This dance also ends with paper snow and buckets that appeared to be for catching the snow.

St. Louis Ballet presented beautiful, structured dance in Figurant with choreography by Emery LeCrone. St. Louis Ballet is recognized for its high artistic caliber and they were graceful, beautiful, and the most traditional dancers of the evening. The choreography was splendid, too. However, the music all string and shrill, dissonant, hyper-fast movements, had me on edge and assaulted my sensitive ears. I heard a gentleman exclaim, “I have to turn down my hearing aid.” Sometimes music can enhance the performance and sometimes it takes away from the superb dancers.

Thanks to Dance St. Louis for another terrific evening of culture, art, and entertainment. St. Louis is fortunate to have so many good dance companies to enjoy.

May 2013

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Spring to Dance 2013

Touhill Performing Arts Center, St. Louis

Sponsored by Dance St. Louis

Reviewed by Lucy Moorman

Shows reviewed: Thu May 23 and Sat May 25

This is the sixth annual Dance St. Louis extravaganza. Every year, I am impressed with the smoothness resulting from the amount of planning and organizing required to pull off 30 different dance performances by dance companies from all over the U.S. (with a fair number from St. Louis) to strut their stuff over three nights. I attended both Thursday and Saturday night performances.

Starting out in Lee Theatre on Thursday night:

Joselyn Renae Simms, Standards: a duet with a male and female fighting over a dress that conveys fitting into a certain slot, almost a yoke of expected behavior. Choreographed by Ms. Simms and nicely done.

Saunders in Motion, Treading Thin: a dance exploring the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep, the conscious and subconscious. This was originally performed at COCA.

Leverage Dance Theatre, Were They Allies? A contemporary dance of women interacting in various quirky and slightly goofy relationships.

DAMAGEDANCE, Finding Flight: Four women with their backs to the audience, support and lean on each other until finally breaking out of safety and comfort to take bold, giant steps forward.

Then, in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall, the evening continued with:

Big Muddy Dance Company, Three for Four (world premiere): These four guys did not miss a beat with interesting, fast-paced choreography, complex partnering, and a mix of conventionality and comedy.

Grand Rapids Ballet, The Envelope: This was the favorite of the evening with choreography by David Parsons. This clever dance is based on passing an envelope among the dancers costumed in black hoods and goggles. The dancers position their arms so that it almost looks like they've been put on backwards. This performance was entertaining, clever, well-danced, and amusing.

Stuart Pimsler Dance & Theatre, Tales from the Book of Longing: A dancer (who can also sing) starts out with a sombre dance about longing and frayed relationships teetering on the edge of interaction. Not sure about the big wall that cut the stage in two.

Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Push Past Break: Oh my, those tappers can dance and incorporate tap dancing into anything resembling blues and hip-hop. One of them sings, as well.

ODC/Dance, Cut-out Guy: Five men lifting and carrying each other around the stage, conveying acts of courage and vulnerability from childhood stories to some dissonant music that became grating the longer it went on.

Jennifer Muller/The Works: There are angels among us. In this dance, a woman is grieving and despondent, but an angel comes down from a trapeze to support and carry her.

Big Muddy Dance Company, The 40s: This ensemble came back for another performance of high-stepping, contemporary jazz/Broadway, conveying that flamboyant time period.

Phew, what a night!Came back for more on Saturday but skipped the early performance in Lee Theatre.There was plenty of dance going on, even in the lobby: everything from Hawaiian to African to Latin--much energy and excitement.

Settling into our seats in the Performance Hall, we enjoyed:

Dance Works Chicago, Dance Sport: A clever way of combining dance and sports. Two sportscasters give us play-by-play commentary on the dancer's performance complete with replays in slow motion. Very creative idea but the music overpowered the announcers and I couldn't hear the announcer on the right; I was seated on the left.

Sewan Dance, Hoop Dance: Native American Eddie Madril danced an original form of hoop dance designed to restore balance and harmony. This was a refreshing change from the other forms of dance and was well-received by the audience.

Joffrey Ballet, Le Corsaire: Classical ballet danced beautifully by two dancers with lifts and holds that went on forever. Elegant and stylish, fantastic performance that I would have liked to enjoy a little longer.

St. Louis Ballet, La Vie: This was the biggest dance company. It seemed as though the stage was crowded with dancers, the choreography was chaotic, the women tall and graceful in their halter dresses, the men not so statuesque. The men's costumes looke like they had just wandered in off the street in wrinkled, sweat-stained shirts and loose shirttails.

Robert Moses' Kin, Speaking Ill of the Dead: "We regret to inform you, " is the soundtrack as dancers convey various forms of receiving that message and dealing with the shock and grief. Good choreography by Robert Moses.

Alvin Ailey, Pas De Duke:As in Duke Ellington, that is. A jazzy number with St. Louis’ pride in Antonio Douthit and Alicia Graf Mack, both tall, striking, amazing dancers whose extension goes on forever. Always a crowd pleaser and they’ll be back for more next year with Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in April 2014.

For a decade now, new­-media Cassandras have been warning about the Death of Journalism as We Know It, and it may yet come to pass. Certainly, attention spans seem shorter these days, and the line between actual thinking and mere aggregation grows ever blurrier. Yet when I look at journals like The Point and n+1 and Triple Canopy; at The Believer and Granta and The New Yorker; at the Kindle Singles and longreads.com and even at what gets passed around on Twitter, I see a robust demand for, and supply of, long-form “magazine writing.” And in just the last few years, a cohort of younger writers including Elif Batuman, Wells Tower, Sam Anderson and John Jeremiah Sullivan has emerged to put its distinctive stamp on the genre. I’m tempted to call the result — with apologies to Tom Wolfe, Robert Boynton and anti-­taxonomists everywhere — the New New New Journalism.

What defines the N3J is a certain generational voice: a mash-up of slacker insouciance and hermeneutic vigor. It’s the old Bellovian high-low, but with reliable connections for both Wi-Fi and pot. You sense cultural omnivorousness in these writers’ choice of subject matter, too: Tolstoy and traffic school; reality TV and cave painting; ChatRoulette and Derrida. Their godparents are not so much Joan Didion and Gay Talese as Nicholson Baker (Updike, Wikipedia), Geoff Dyer (Rodin, doughnuts) and David Foster Wallace (tennis, infinity).

Even in such polymathic company, Tom Bissell stands out for the range of his interests. At 38, he’s published volumes of memoir and travelogue and comedy and short fiction, not to mention “Extra Lives,” a book-length meditation on the nature and meaning of video games. Now comes his first essay collection, “Magic Hours.” It gathers a decade’s worth of shorter pieces on subjects so diverse that its through-line, “Creators and Creation,” comes to seem like a fig leaf. Sitcoms and Paula Fox and war documentaries and small-town America. . . . For breadth alone, “Magic Hours” would deserve a prominent spot on the growing N3J bookshelf. But it delivers more than just a variety show. Like the filmmaker Werner Herzog — the subject of a remarkable profile here — Bissell wants to drill down to “some illumination, some truth, some place where we step out of ourselves.”

He writes these essays with a storyteller’s eye for detail. He can summon a setting in an adjective or two: the “Viagral” cars and “bespoke little mailboxes” of the Hollywood Hills, the “hash-marked permafrost” of a football field in his hometown, Escanaba, Mich. About character, too, he can be funny and pithy and acute. (He writes of Tommy Wiseau, the auteur behind the cult-shlock Gesamtkunstwerk “The Room,” “The overall effect was that of a vampire who had joined the merchant marine.”) This is not to suggest that Bissell coasts on novelistic chops. He is also a diligent researcher with a genius for quotation. His greatest gifts as an essayist, though, resemble the more numinous attributes he imagines in an ideal travel writer: “curiosity, a willingness to be uncertain, an essential emotional generosity.”

To this list, we might add “moral imagination.” The word “moral” pops up frequently in Bissell’s essays, and in a surprising array of connections: political, aesthetic and personal. One of the longest essays in the book is a thorough demolition of the oeuvre of the popular historian Robert D. Kaplan. “It is both a literary and moral failure,” Bissell concludes, in one of those moments where we learn as much about the reviewer as about the thing under review.

That said, “Magic Hours” has some literary failings of its own. Alchemizing the demotic and the nerdtacular into something apposite and honest and clear, in the grand N3J manner, requires huge feats of behind-the-scenes discipline. Bissell’s prose, by contrast, sometimes gets hung up in registers of mandarin fussiness (“If I belabor the point . . . I do so to make a point”) or McSweeneyite muzz (“Well, sort of, maybe, but mostly: huh?”). The two collide in some spectacularly maladroit metaphors, as with “the smothering Velcro of European critical prejudice” in the early 20th century, or the subject whose “dimples . . . colonize her face when she smiles.”

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