Boston University Dance Theater, Boston, MA.
“Great artists find a way to be themselves within their art,” once affirmed the iconic prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Boston-based OnStage Dance Company includes a large group of adults dancers from all walks of life — medical professionals, teachers, scientists, salespeople and so much more. I always appreciate how these artists bring this broad experience – bring their full selves – to choreography and performance for OnStage shows. Yet, that multiplicity of authentic experience and perspective felt particularly clear and compelling in its Season 24 Performance. It underscored for me just how much dance can be, just how much of the human experience it can illuminate.
In addition to the below, gracing the stage was Allie Hahn’s The DJ is Crying, a notably well-characterized portrayal of struggles in various walks of life, and rising above those challenges by sheer force of persistent grit; Kellie Johnson’s evocative contemporary piece Love; Not Wrong, with layers of movement and long skirt fabric pulling me right in; Erica Thorp’s Gimme All Your Love, very similar to Love; Not Wrong but with an edgier, “rock”-ified atmosphere, thrilling in its risks; Kayla Coleman’s Flowers, with fresh choices in movement vocabulary and staging consistently offering new possibility; Juanita Pearl’s raw hip hop piece Girl Fight, fully honest, but also pleasantly characterized in movement quality and context; Teresa Dominick’s Stay, a soft and expressive, yet also at times weighted “lyrical”-style piece, with formations that kept me guessing as to what moving picture could enliven the stage next.
The program opened with Erica Thorp’s Hot Honey Rag, a big and vibrant musical theater number. To begin, dancers came forward from a line upstage, traveling downstage with their own signatures in jazzy movement vocabulary. From there, formations continued to dynamically shift. That mercurial quality matched the lively quality of the iconic score – the work’s namesake, from the musical Chicago.
Throughout, the movement vocabulary was complex enough to dazzle, but streamlined and elemental enough to stay looking clean and precise on a large ensemble. That can be a tough balance to strike, and Thorp tipped those scales quite commendably. All in all, Hot Honey Rag was a wonderfully energetic crowd-pleaser, perfect to open the show and capture the audience.
Tomorrow, by Raquel Perez in collaboration with the dancers, shifted the tone at hand to something softer and more reflective, something more about the stormy ebbs and flows of one’s thoughts than about pop, pizzazz and all the confidence. The only light present at the piece’s start was that of a phone screen. “There will be better days…let the wave wash over me,” proclaimed the score (Tomorrow by Miner). As the piece progressed, that “there will be” became a mantra: repeating enough to become its own meditation. Of course, our minds wander in meditation, and various layers and other lyrics in the score made themselves known.
Perez’s choreography reflected that continuous pull away from a central grounded place and then return to it: like waves leaving and then returning to the shore. Certain sections were frenetic but then came back to familiar movement vocabulary. Weightedness right into the stage but also skyward lift – literally, with dancers lifting each other in support – was another poignant duality. They reached hungrily out into space for possibility, which can seem unreachable when that grounded central place feels all too far away.
Perez also did well giving various dancers moments to shine, to be seen. In some of our hardest moments, that can be what we really need. The work also felt apropos as presented at the start of Mental Health Awareness Month – one crafted with true care and the courage to shine a light on those darkest moments. There always is light, if we can bring it.
Melissa deFriesse’s Feel Good Inc., delightfully strange and plain fun, came fourth in the program. Dancers grooved out with headphones on, wearing all sort of colors and patterns. They reflected that person I’d daresay we can all picture: out in public immersed in their own pure bliss, dancing to music only they can hear – truly like no one’s watching (when many might be) – and rocking a daring, eye-catching outfit. All power to them, I say!
deFriesse’s movement vocabulary, a buoyant mish-mash of hip-hop and jazz, supported that feel well. Just as, if not more important, for realizing this concept was the dancers bringing their full uniqueness to the stage: quirky, zany, brightly energetic, what have you. That they did to the absolute fullest.
Chelsea Lepkowski and Hannah Perry’s dance film Goo Goo Muck, a memorable iteration of the school dance from the current hit television series Wednesday, came seventh in the program. Nintendo-like beats in the score (Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough, for one), jazz dancers’ puffy skirts in all sorts of popping colors, big and bold hair styles: all elements that built a 1980’s school dance atmosphere.
Tap dancers tipped a hat to Wednesday herself: wearing black and braids, and also coming off as generally “over it” all. Other sections brought spirited social dance vocabulary, with arms alternating up and down in a wave motion. A clever, fresh ending had Wednesday’s hand creeping over a school dance decoration piece (cinematography and editing by Andres Calderon / dresticHaus). A gentleman swept up after the dance, pushing his broom to the camera as a last frame. Overall, the work succeeded in bringing to life a fun concept aligned with a popular piece of contemporary culture.
Susan Oziemblewski’s I Can’t Stand the Rain came ninth in the program, a contemporary work illustrating a fascinating evolution from foreboding dark to kaleidoscopic light. To begin, lighting kept the dancers in shadow: just enough to mysteriously illuminate their movement and presence. The bluesy score (Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain”) supported that shadowy, rainy day feel. The score even included rain sounds towards the end: calming yet also inspiring melancholy, a deep pensiveness.
Soon after that darker opening, dancers began to excute athletic, tenacious movement. Yet the vocabulary also didn’t try too hard at anything; Oziemblewski and the ensemble hit just the right note there. Towards the end, dancers faced a rainbow of colors across the backdrop, holding hands in a line across the upstage. Lit in silhouette, facing all of those bright colors, it seemed as if they welcomed the vivacity and hope of this rainbow. The rain comes, but always passes – and that’s the important thing.
Then came Jennifer Kuhnberg’s Roll the Bones, a tap piece as heartwarming as it was groovy. The dancers were together absorbed in clean rhythm. Wearing casual jeans and corduroy, just as notable was their easefulness. They signaled to each other as dancers in a social dance context might, indicating cues for improvisation and structural shifts. With them looking to each other fondly, I could sense sincere mutuality and friendship in the group. Ending in a laugh and a hug, I smiled to remember the important place of friendship and community in dance – and how the art form can even inspire those things beyond its own circles.
Then came Alexa Romancewicz’s emotive and tenacious sad day. The movement vocabulary began more internal, and then – along with musical shifts – evolved into a more spacious thrashing quality. The movement was overall abstract, yet formed and expressive enough to offer a clear way into meaning and emotion. The grey costumes also supported a “blank canvas” sense – combined with the abstraction at hand, allowing audience members to put their own story to it all, to relate in their own way. The work ended with dancers grabbing into a fist in the air in a line and walking back: reaching for what sustains, what nourishes, what connects.
The program closed (apart from the always engaging finale, including all members of the large cast) with Alyssa Rosenfeld’s large group jazz funk piece Nasty Women [Throwback] (restaged by Andrea Lubin). Set to Janet Jackson hits, with dancers wearing black and sequined hats, the work was vivid and sultry in a perfectly tasteful way.
Rosenfeld’s movement vocabulary was pleasantly musical, with some footwork and rhythmic patterns even feeling inspired by Step dance (a form popular particularly on campuses of HBCUs – Historically Black Colleges and Universities).The piece brought the show full circle as another big “crowd pleaser” number, just as vigorous and joyful as the show opener was. It was also simply satisfying to see women together in that kind of proud, united feel, immersed together in pure rhythm and physicality.
That’s the very tip of the tip of the iceberg of the boundless possibility within the art form of dance – something that this program very much reminded me of. Perhaps that’s part of the magic that we see in it: how many places it can bring us, how much it can make us feel and think, how much we can continue to uncover within it. It never has to end. Enjoy the journey!
By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.