I came away thoroughly impressed and inspired by the UW Dance Program's fall faculty concert Splash, presented Saturday night in Wisconsin Union Theater. Many of the works were interdisciplinary, the result of collaborations between dance department faculty and colleagues in other departments. The student dancers were well trained and focused, whether performing UW instructors' works or the choreography of the guest artist, New York-based Susan Marshall.
Opening the evening was program chair Jin-Wen Yu's piece "Metabolic Dances," a collaboration with scientist Olga Trubetskoy. It explored drug metabolism. While I sometimes found the images and text projected behind the dancers distracting (a Japanese wood cut, an Escher print, Rodin's The Thinker), the choreography was compelling. One striking moment came when Melissa Erickson, in the first of several solid performances, passed through a gently undulating column of fabric. Freshman Shoshana Moyer was a standout with her fluid style and clean lines. Renee Roeder's costumes of layered fabrics served the piece and dancers well, as did percussionist John Doing's original composition.
Kate Corby's "And Everywhere in Between," set to a Rochberg variation performed by violinist Kangwon Kim, showed the depth of the department's "bench": the dancers were all first-year majors, and they were uniformly good. In abbreviated party dresses from designer Maggie Dianovsky, a quartet of dancers first entered with a challenging passage of small jumps and quick direction changes. Later, a dancer in a golden dress shuffled across stage with hunched shoulders until she paused to arch her back and languidly curve her arm, creating a lovely silhouette. Other dancers followed her lead, crossing the stage in quick succession, at one point using a quirky little bird-like walking crawl while gently shaking their heads no.
Li Chiao-Ping explored the seismic shifts caused by earthquakes in "Shifting Ground." Dancer Brittany Wittman, in a feminine blouse and skirt, was given delicate steps and gestures, which she gingerly handled. Carlyn Pitterle in a sporty tank top recited text from earthquake survivors while moving smoothly. Emily Schroeder in a tunic ably handled Li's demanding floor work. The three swiftly ran in circles (sometimes running and walking convincingly can be harder than complex steps), then came together under a shaft of light, with words projected on their bodies. Projected seismograph images grew in size as the dancers' balances became intentionally shakier.
"Left at Right" from Chris Walker was a crowd-pleaser, eliciting whoops of delight from the audience. With lively West African and African Caribbean drumming and stirring poetry, the piece joined a group of "traditional" African dancers and an ensemble of "contemporary" dancers. The groups were wonderful on their own and together. Mary Patterson opened and closed the piece with her sinewy smoothness, drawing my eye to her even when she was doing something simple like weaving around the African dancers with little shoulder shrugs.
Peggy Choy's "Transform 2" verged on self-important, with its MRI videos of a brain combined with dancers coiled in a fetal position that echoed the shape of the brain. But then I was pleasantly surprised when two dancers wrapped in fabric unspooled it to reveal a sheer, stretchy membrane. Suddenly, other dancers in their shimmery and slightly lumpy costumes shot through an opening.
Marlene Skog's "Cross Current" left me a little cold, but her thoughtful collaboration with set and costume designer Carolyn Kallenborn certainly provided some striking moments. Large swaths of fabric were manipulated by dancer Karen McShane-Hellenbrand, a fellow faculty member. Bathed in blue light, Hellenbrand darted between the swaths while accompanied on piano by Ina Selvelieva, who performed Ravel's lush "Ondine."
It was already a very satisfying evening of dance by the time guest artist Susan Marshall's "Name by Name" began. The piece opened with a dancer emerging from underneath the stage curtain, revealing only her head, arms and torso. As she began a series of lovely port de bras, she twisted to stare at the audience like a blankly beautiful mannequin. Her hands then gently patted the curtain, a gesture that was both gorgeous and a bit creepy.
Other dancers began to spill out from under the curtain, and when it rose, we saw dancers set in a tableau of very traditional corps de ballet poses, immediately bringing to mind the rows of stage-framing dancers in classic works like La Bayadère and Swan Lake. But these dancers were clad in sports bras and volleyball shorts, some with gauzy muslin skirts or shifts. This corps de ballet appeared to be infected with a malaise, as a few dancers literally pushed against the balletic confines, creating a domino effect of unrest. Several dancers took their turn at a sequence that began with their hands crossed over their bellies. Arms were whipped around torsos, and then dancers dropped with a lunge onto the floor.
I was really moved by the piece, particularly when some dancers stooped to pick up a fallen comrade, and when a group of dancers ended up smooshed together. The piece ended with the large cast simply striding toward the audience. I caught my breath, because they suddenly seemed quite fearsome. The dancers capably took on Marshall's demanding choreography, and once again Patterson and Pitterle shone. Pitterle showed versatility and a crisp, precise technique, while Patterson's athleticism and stage presence were riveting. It's not a surprise that several choreographers paired them together. They show a maturity that makes me certain they'll be ready to join professional companies when they graduate.
The oldest dance program in the country is doing innovative work while turning out some very talented young dancers. It's a shame that the performance was for one night only. But the beauty of dance is often fleeting.