Jayme Agranat (left) and Emily Mitchell (right) perform "Twang Pon Old Foot Slang" by Chris Walker in UW Dance Department's Unearth
I am taking a meditation course, and one of my assignments has been to approach things with a "beginner's mind." As a result, I tried something new at Unearth, the latest faculty concert by the UW Dance Department (through Feb. 15 at Lathrop Hall's Maraget H'Doubler Performance Space). I didn't peruse the program before the production. I wanted to have fewer preconceived notions about which choreographer's work I was seeing and which dancers would appear in each piece.
In some cases, I knew whose work I was watching because his or her hallmarks were so strong and specific. For instance, I immediately recognized the pieces belonging to Chris Walker and Jin-Wen Yu. In other cases, I was pleasantly surprised to see something unexpected. This was especially true of works by Karen McShane-Hellenbrand and Marlene Skog.
McShane-Hellenbrand's quartet Organa is inspired by water, whose sound is accompanied by live vocals from classical soloist Sarah Leuwerke. This piece is more spare and nuanced than I what I have previously seen from McShane-Hellenbrand. It ends in a lovely way. The dancers bend over one other, each with an arm dangling. Their hands circle languidly, like one might trail a hand through the water beneath a slow-moving boat.
–valence by Li Chiao-Ping is part of larger, site-specific work to be performed in May at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. Powerhouse Nicolette Meunier is the first performer to appear, dancing to Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry." Strong and secure, she takes the time to fill out each movement. There are several phrases repeated throughout, from jogging in place to a sudden pop into a parallel fourth position with the arms slapped together. Sunny yellow costumes add vibrancy as well.
I felt conflicted as I took in Chris Walker's Twang Pon Old Foot Slang, which incorporates a traditional Jamaican dance vocabulary. Two distinct impressions kept cropping up: "This is entertaining and exuberant" and "I don't like the costumes, and some dancers are struggling to commit to what Walker is asking of them." Other dancers throw themselves into the piece. Flora Kim is a risk-taker whose strong technique allows her to push herself onstage.
Marlene Skog's Midnight begins with the spotlight on the Zechariah Ruffin. Supple as can be, she lowers herself into a deep plié and creates stunning shapes with her long, muscular arms. Later she moves forward, still low to the ground. Her upper body doesn't move in opposition to her legs, and the result is belabored but beautiful. Ruffin, James Hibbard, Kathleen Warner and the excellent Elizabeth Sexe, who also choreographed an enjoyable opening piece, receive support from student dancers. Of those students, Palmer Matthews is especially good.
It is you, and you, and you... was unmistakably Jin Wen-Yu's work. There were no gimmicks here, just great dancing from the talented cast of Hiroki Koba, Sarah Schwab and Petra Weith. The dancers were dressed in black, with netting insets and a few splashes of red. I'd seen compelling performances from Weith before but wasn't as familiar with Koba and Schwab. Koba plays with dynamics but is always in control. Schwab dances with sweetness and clarity but also shows moments of steely strength, like a sharp reaction to Koba's flick of her long braid.
Visiting from San Francisco, guest artist Joe Goode choreographed Things Fall Apart, a piece inspired by Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron. I often grow weary of spoken word in dance, but this piece's words effectively highlight the impermanence and imperfections of human bodies and relationships. Embraces disintegrate, and the dancers return to a specific gesture time and time again: A hand is splayed open, and then the index finger of the other hand points to a vulnerable spot on the wrist. It's refreshing to see more male dancers than usual in this production; Henry Holmes and Koba turn in impressive performances.