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2012 Archives

The Dancer as Painter

Excerpt

The following story ran in the March 29, 2012, edition of TheaterJones.com.

April 9, 2012

By Margaret Putnam

Southern Methodist University's Meadows Dance Ensemble intrigues with choreographer Shen Wei's enigmatic A New You.

Ideas, concepts, ideas, ideas, concepts, concepts. The mind was abuzz taking in all of Shen Wei's ambitious The New You, what with artists splashing paint on a Plexiglas sheet, dancers sliding down a slanted wall, smearing paint as they descend, numbers being called out by actors, odd sounds coming from musicians, and the obligatory odd-ball movement. Yes, it was just sufficiently out-of-the-ordinary to keep one's attention, but not something most people would care to see again.
 
Quoting Shen Wei's statement in the printed program: "Art opens doors we never thought existed and enables us to access previous unknown dimensions."
 
Yeah, right.
 
What I gathered from the premiere of The New You, performed Wednesday night by Southern Methodist University's Meadows Dance Ensemble, was that numbers, letters, names, words, colors, sounds and dimensions can be neatly played off against each other. The letter A, for example, translates to the number one; the number13 translates to the word "field." Or maybe not, because it was impossible to keep track of the dizzy bouncing back and forth of words, letters, sounds and movement.
 
With so much going on all at once, it was amazingly orderly, almost mathematical in precision. The surprise came in watching artists spray-paint the bodies (and occasionally faces and hair) of the nine dancers, each with her own distinctive color, whether it be dark rose, purple, green, or pale blue; then watching the dancers slide from above, making interesting graffiti marks on their way down.
 
Who am I to knock an enterprise that intended to draw many art forms together and put a spin on the digital age? Shen Wei started from scratch, and viola ─ a complete, complicated, and somewhat compelling product.
 
But if you hanker for sheer pleasure, look no further than Adam Hougland's Five Preludes and Danny Buraczeski's Song Awakened.
 
Five Preludes, set to Rachmaninoff's Twenty-Four Preludes for Piano, was a pretty affair with a bit of an edge. Mr. Hougland knows how to show to advantage sharp pointe work and the elegant extensions of 15 dancers. Eugenia P. Stallings' black tutus and saucy black feathers perched on top of the dancers' heads added glamour.
 
The ensemble of eight dancers crisscrossed the stage with jaunty leaps, forming new groups and patterns. If arm and leg movements were not always executed at the same angle or at precisely the same moment, this was compensated by crisp passés, relevés and bourrées.
 
The first pas de deux illuminates the back of Harry Feril, his shoulders undulating snake-like, giving us the understanding that even neo-classic ballet has room to stretch. Once Aubry Neal appears, we were back to the usual cleanly articulated arabesques and lifts, here too with a twist. Mr. Feril grabs and tosses Ms. Neal, and she falls into his arms folded over like a limp doll. There is more tossing, leaving her upside down at times, and more folding over. Finally, he turns his back on us, and Ms. Neal sits on one bent leg and turns her head toward the audience, looking ever so calmly out into space.
 
The second pas de deux with Ellie Blanchett and Bo Pressly was not quite so unorthodox, but repeated some of the abrupt tosses and collapses.
 
Speed, energy and ever-shifting patterns suited perfectly a work designed to show students at their best, with Rachmaninoff's impassioned music fueling the fire.
 
Dedicated to the singer Cesária Evora, who died last December, Song Awakened enveloped the space in a warm glow. The glow was deep and misty at first, shifting to bright and sunny and then back to sleepy moonlight.
 
Our first view is a figure in reddish purple standing still, barely visible with a crescent moon in the background. Hidden behind Katrina Kutsch is Albert Levi Drake III, and when he opens his arms and the lights grow just bright enough to illuminate the two, they split apart. Their bodies arch and swing with arms curving and flowing.
 
The dance consists of four more sections featuring six more dancers, clad in blousy tie-dyed pants or shirts in hues of blue and teal. They come and go, sometimes dancing to a bouncing, quick beat, or to a rumba that calls for smooth hip and shoulder gyrations, or at other times inspired to perform exuberant leaps. At the end, the sleepy group of six slowly retreats, leaving the original couple to engage once more in those luxurious arches and swings. A full moon emerges, casting a shimmery light on the pair as though to bid them a safe and calm rest.