When the director of dance studies, Sharon Butcher, says the HSU Dance Department is "moving forward with great momentum and a powerhouse of new, extremely talented dancers," she isn't kidding. Gravity Defined, HSU's Spring Dance Concert at the Van Duzer, boasts 46 dancers in 10 new works choreographed by students and faculty. All good. Major whoa.
By the fourth piece of the program, Kara Ajentunmobi's A Step Behind, it was visible that the crux of this concert was clearly defined form. The hallmark of these dancers' choreographic training is the spacing and timing of taking large groups, then breaking them up and rearranging them. Each is marked with solid movement phrases, partnering and floor work. We all want to make dances about world peace, but structure comes before content. Commendably, this principle seems an evident discipline of the department.
Large geometric works without overt emotional content leave room for dancers to reveal an inner life. This is apparent in Lyndsey Lascheck's Elevated Contour and in the nine-person A Step Behind, where my eye caught the exquisite touch of Aimee Page. De'V Howard's open persona stood out in Natalie Daughton's, Magnetic Mama, a graffitied, tie-dyed mix of hip-hop, African, modern and Middle-Eastern dance. Howard also shone in Linda Maxwell's Tribal Echoes, along with a woman's opening solo, a magnificent circle of bare-chested men and scaffolding designed by Kati Dawson and Kyle Handziak. Energized Matter, Micol Arias' collaboration with Jessica Charles and David Kenworthy, showcased dancers playfully costumed in serpentine strands of light.
These students have the rare boon of working with skilled lighting, set and costume designers as part of the Interdisciplinary Theater, Film and Dance major. We have a big picture when the dance comes out. Unless a story is being told, like in the tangoed love triangle El Amor con Tres Puntos (with luscious Marissa Young and costumes a la Copa Cabana by Lynnie Horrrigan), these abstract dances are not linear narratives.
The earthy dancers in the gorgeous Siren Song by Kellie Simmons Marble were sensuous, fluid and ethereal, as she herself extolled in her program note. Marble's piece justifyied those adjectives. Same goes for the promised "sanctuary" created in Jacqueline Boorstein's lovely In This Place.
Jumping on one leg while the other is extended to the side seems difficult; doing it with your foot reaching toward your ear, over and over? More so. Butcher says it's "easy for them" -- the dancers in Sonic Riff, her athletic ensemble piece set to composer Christopher Rouse's Bonham (a paean to Led Zeppelin's drummer John Bonham). How the heck did these girls count the percussion score? "They don't count but feel the phrasing of the music," explained Butcher. This is a sophisticated skill, especially when dancing full-throttle to a complicated musical composition. Butcher has given us a great gift by challenging her students and herself with such dicey work.
At 27, Aren Rye's maturity shows in his groundbreaking Making Contact. His view is broad. Perhaps studying both botany and English informs his desire to make work that demands creative participation from his dancers. Rye spent half of rehearsal time facilitating this group of strikingly attuned performers in contact improvisation jams (free-play movement explorations), a technique new to the cast. They would later use it onstage. Masterful in guiding his dancers into performing this exciting work -- people have tried for decades, finding it sublimely difficult to merge structured and improvised sections into one dance -- this guy is onto something big.
I see this university department's reputation growing as many of these dancers are going to be here a few more years. Dance departments gain reputations by being a place dancers want to be. In smaller cities and rural areas the department becomes the hub as more dance ripples out in the form of outside classes. You find alumnae hanging out after graduation because of teaching and performance opportunities, starting their own companies and collectives along with grown dancers attracted to an area that's less competitive and expensive than New York or San Francisco. In a thriving dance community, faculty has its own concerts and often starts companies the university supports with rehearsal and theater space.
This is the time for dance lovers with bucks to spare to step up and start a performance endowment at the university. These devoted young dancers need to be up on that stage more often than an annual spring concert, at the very least in a student and a separate faculty concert, including guest choreographers. They'd get to dance. We'd get to see it.
Don't miss this show. Gravity Defined, the HSU Spring Dance Concert, runs again this Thursday through Saturday, April 21-23, at 7:30 p.m. at the Van Duzer Theatre.
Heads Up: This season's Two Left Feet Dance Project is fast approaching. Performances are at Redwood Raks in the Old Creamery Building at 9th and K streets. in Arcata on Saturday April 30 at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee Sunday May 1, at 2 p.m.
Brava! Dance Eureka presents classical and contemporary works at the Van Duzer Theatre directed by Virginia Niekrasz-Laurent. This is Virginia's return to the big stage with a full two-act concert, including revivals of her classical repertory, the premiere of a contemporary ballet and guests choreographers. Friday May 20 at 7:30 p.m. Info at 442-7770 or www.danceeureka.com
Further ahead: Cosmos, directed by Erin Fernandez, inspired by the wonder we call space, Saturday June 4 at 6 p.m. and Sunday matinee June 6 at 2 p.m. at the Van Duzer Theatre with a cast of 225 dancers, ages 4 to adult, including guest artists and Trillium Dance Ensemble.