For once I didn't leave the UW Dance Program's Fall Faculty Concert disappointed. The student performers looked better than usual, and two intriguing guest choreographers put some thrill on last weekend's bill. The show, in Lathrop Hall's H'Doubler theater, sold out Thursday night.
Chris Walker, of Jamaica's National Dance Theater Company, is teaching Afro-Caribbean class this fall. He had two pieces on the program, and Alberto del Saz, director of the Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance, flew in from New York to set one of Alwin Nikolais' quintessential works on the students. Dance faculty members Jin-Wen Yu, Claudia Melrose and Marlene Skog also contributed.
Walker deserves praise for engaging students of color despite the UW's poor track record on minorities. His "Variations a Ska," which opened the show, was a serious exercise in stamina with some nice jivey moves, though overall the music was more seductive than the dancing.
His second work, "Hill n' Gully," rocked. Eighteen dancers in 19th-century Jamaican festival garb posed before a backdrop of projected island scenes ' markets, mangroves, hibiscus, landscapes. The last of these colorful tableaux vivants sprang to life when dramatic, dreadlocked Walker, chanting in Creole, crossed the stage. A medley of Afro-Caribbean dances followed in his wake ' call and response between live drummers and dancers, spicy duets, a men's trio, women whirling skirts. Some dancers definitely stood out in this genre, but everyone was having fun.
Sandwiched between Walker's two works came a pair of polar-opposite premieres by Yu. The first, "Player's Prayer," was a dark duet for black-hooded, Grim Reaper-ish Tim Russell on Mac keyboard synth and a solo dancer (Lauren Rosenstein) in sneakers, combat pants and a red hoodie sweatshirt. The dance had echoes of Yu's '04 ode to insanity, "Nest," and faculty member-on-leave Li Chiao-Ping's energy-path repertory piece "Chi."
Yu's second work, "Last Glimpse of Sunset," a little allegro moderato slipper ballet for four modern dancers in short pastel dresses, was a far cry from his signature postmodern mode. The sharp contrast with "Player's Prayer" gave this modest dance an interesting edge.
Melrose's piece for six, "Sprint," cleverly titled but less rich than her usual oeuvre, seemed wrought from basic improv exercises ' act/react, push/pull, angular/fluid, move like a robot, talk loudly on cell phone while walking fast.
Skog gets kudos for highlighting Jenny Fox's considerable ballet training and performance talent in a vaguely fawnlike, utterly modern solo, "In Broken Silence."
del Saz's flawless reconstruction of Nikolais' 1955 "Tensile Involvement" came off smoothly, despite the short time he worked with the dancers. In the audience, older Dance Program alums from the days when Nik's vision loomed large in Lathrop Hall were struck with deja vu. I left Lathrop fully psyched for the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company's Nikolais retrospective concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Feb. 23.