It could have been a success.
Or a catastrophe.
I could have left with white knuckles.
Or crippling ennui.
This is the way with any performance I attend. Of course, I hope every show will be perfect. For the artists’ sake as much as my own.
But dance concerts are a real crap-shoot.
Last weekend, April 28-30, Meredith College presented DanceWorks, a three-night event showcasing the work of its younger students (Emerging Artists Concert), advanced students, faculty, and alumnae (Mainstage Artists Concert) and a gala event combining the very best of the two. Students rehearse twice a week in preparation for the spring concert.
I chose to attend, and review, the Mainstage Artists Concert out of sheer curiosity and a love of dance. I discovered a diverse selection of thirteen short dance pieces that ranged from clunky to thrilling.
While there were several promising works, I have chosen four in particular that merit deeper analysis because of their personal impact. Whether it moved me, seduced me, terrified me, or baffled me, these were the ones that stood out the most.
THE ONE THAT MOVED ME…
From a dark stage an intense spotlight reveals a young African American girl, perhaps 13 years old. She is completely still, staring vacantly out toward the audience. Her dress is black with a severe white collar–reminiscent of TV’s Wednesday Addams. A dangling red ribbon peeks around from behind her head.
Suddenly, her arms scissor, one over the other, slapping her chest an inch below her collar bones. With military precision, her arms uncross and shoot down to grip both hips, elbows out a la Wonder Woman. Straightaway she claps her hands as though in prayer before presenting her palms toward the audience. I hear a slapping sound effect indicating palm-to-palm contact with an imaginary playmate, thrice in rapid succession. Save for her arms, she is stationary.
The Girl in the Black Dress and the imaginary playmate–voice coming through the auditorium speakers–repeat this ritual while reciting a child’s poem in rhythm with their taps and claps.
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back…
But her play and clothing are joyless–almost mournful. Something is wrong.
After a few rounds of the game, daylight appears and she turns away from the audience, approaching a clique of girls–all dressed the same as she. As they enjoy hopscotch and ring-around-the-rosie, the setting becomes clear: a playground. The black dresses, far from traditional private school uniforms, are unsettlingly discordant.
As the ambient post-rock music of Sigur Rós fades in, I scan the sextet and notice that The Girl is the only dancer of color.
The choreographer incorporates the chants of childhood play-songs–anglo rituals developed in the the mid-1800s, stolen directly from African ceremonial dance. Calling to mind both colonial invasion and modern cultural appropriation, I watch five white girls dance carelessly to the rhythms of The Girl’s ancestors as she struggles to regain that ancient connection–a solid metaphor for post-colonial western racial dynamics.
If there is one thing that little upper-class white girls love, it is ballet. Unlike The Girl, this is their ancestry at work, the style having developed during the Italian Renaissance. McMillan injects the arabesques, jumps, and glides learned at the barre. The delicacy and joy of the dancers lulls me into a complacent trance.
But as the stage lights bring a sinister gloom upon the playground, I lean forward, awoken. The schoolgirls fall to their knees, cheeks against the stage, with their arms bound behind them. One sprints fearfully across the stage, momentarily stopping to gasp at some horror in the distance.
Soon, they are freed from bondage and walk unafraid upstage, arms raised, toward an invisible imposing force. The image of pig-tailed schoolgirls surrendering to police is a haunting one.
But The Girl, the only child of color, does not rise. I feel uneasy and helpless as she is left bound and alone in the near-dark. Images of Eric Garner, a black man, being tackled, choked, and suffocated to death by NYPD flash through my mind. Many young men are shot for the crime of blackness, while white criminals are handled with kid gloves. The parallels to this dance are clear.
Finally, and to my great relief, the little black girl totters to her feet, finally unbound. She catches the spirit of her ancestors, exploding with the stomping, clapping, and body-slapping common among high school dance teams–mostly enjoyed by young black girls while the white girls press their cheerleading uniforms. This is her Miss Mary Mack. But this spirit fades as she realizes the potential for danger. What if someone sees this unconstrained behavior. Resigned, she returns to the place where we met her, in the spotlight, surrounded again by darkness.
After a deep sigh, the traditional, almost robotic Anglo clapping game recommences, as does the voice of the imaginary playmate, whose chant of “Miss Mary Mack” fades into an alternate: Miss Mary Black. “Mary Black-Black-Black” then morphs into “Black Lives Mat-Mat-Ter” as the lights fade away, The Girl in the Black Dress continuing to parrot this white girl’s game, seemingly forever.
Dielle McMillan, Meredith senior and dance minor used her allotted time well in the DanceWorks concert–illustrating the disparate treatment of black and white Americans. McMillan is particularly suited to explore the topic. She begins a Master’s program in Social work this fall and has affirmed a commitment to fusing art with social justice. This short piece, entitled “Miss Mary Black,” confirms that her mission is both realizable and worthwhile.
Though the choreography, staging, lighting, and costuming integrate to form a solid piece of dance, the title, “Miss Mary Black,” feels glib. It winks at the audience and hinders the piece’s shock value. The “Black Lives Matter” chant feels clumsy and patronizing. I was on board long before then. You need not tell me what you’ve quite successfully shown me.
McMillan is a promising force. She proves able to illustrate complex sociocultural ideas within the span of several minutes. I am interested to see what she could do with an hour.
THE ONE THAT SEDUCED ME…
Guest choreographer Nicole Lawson’s piece was one of the evening’s more substantial. While not technically flawless, the ensemble–especially eye-catching sophomore Kayla Jane Smith–is a robust one.
Lawson, a recent Meredith graduate, in collaboration with her dancers, has constructed “Temple.” This two-part dance opens with the subtle hum of “Oceanic” by Conjure One, matched in tone by golden side lights and a touch of blue from above.
I first observe a semicircle, open toward the audience, of thirteen Greek muses in metallic, knee-length dresses, which begin to shimmer as they spring to life. Each dancer is choreographed independently of the others with a solitary attitude of self-admiration. Their arms float as if underwater, wrists and elbows bending with graceful fluidity. Hips gently swivel, but feet remain planted. Necks and shoulders roll if as being massaged.
The entire stage contains an aura of peace, beauty, and divine inspiration. Soon the semicircle disintegrates and the muses explore the space with balletic elegance. Unexpectedly, the lights fade from a haze of gold and blue to a harsh wash of magenta.
This second part of Lawson’s peace is the negative of the first. The company of muses is replaced by a band of sirens, dancing to Alina Baraz’s “Make You Feel.”
The aura is sensual, passionate, and fiery. The mission of the muses–to inspire creation–is replaced by the siren’s desire to seduce and devour. The ensemble is more synchronized, each gesture more direct and intentional. The rigid edges and acute angles of the upper body are reminiscent of Madonna’s “Vogue” as the sirens direct their attention to audience from all angles–including from the floor.
At the climax, when senior Madison Parson is held aloft by the temptresses and falls back into their arms, the lights, music, and choreography return us to briefly Mount Olympus with the company of muses before fading out.
Lighting designer Jim Frick deserves much of the praise for this dance’s success–his strong sense of timing, focus, and palate helped many of the evening’s pieces, but Lawson’s in particular.
The piece needed more rehearsal time on the stage. There were spacing abnormalities–a problem throughout entire concert–and the dancers had to make noticeable corrections.
While an effectively communicated concept, this will not go down as Lawson’s greatest work. But, more importantly, her choreography suggests that there are great things to come.
THE ONE THAT TERRIFIED ME…
With intense side-lighting, senior Mary Blaire Stephens’s shadows dance across the pipes of Jones Auditorium’s grand organ as she whips and twists with zombie-like, razor-sharp isolations. In a red turtle-necked dress, she battles an invisible, invasive force as an evocative a capella version of Alanis Morissette’s “Your House” plays. Thus begins the evening’s most captivating and startling piece, “Shouldn’t Be Here” from adjunct faculty member Eleanor Smith.
From behind Stephens, an eerie hoard of black-draped dancers emerge from a veil of upstage darkness as if from another dimension. As the music intensifies, I do not know whether these walking dead plan to assist the soloist in emotional combat or drag her back to hell. As Stephens flees, the troupe echoes her earlier movements with disquieting jerks of the neck and limbs.
In a terrifying climax, the spectres break their own necks in a suicidal frenzy before rising from the dead. Stephens returns and leads the army of darkness into battle with the invasive invader. Moving like possessed marionettes, the ensemble retreats backwards into the inky darkness and the soloist is left alone once again.
Smith’s piece was one of the evening’s best fusions of music and dance with Morissette’s lyrics driving rather than decorating. This dance has an unexpected, striking narrative with room for unanswered questions. While increased clarity of the soloist’s opening story could be helpful, this piece was more concert-ready than any other.
THE ONE THAT BAFFLED ME…
“Pavan for Things We Like and Do Not Like” was the evening’s most ambitious dance piece, and therefore had the farthest to fall, in both staging and choreography. A pavan is a slow, dignified couple dance, emphasized here by the delicacy of John Dowland Lachrimae Antiquae.
Professor and department head Carol Finley demonstrates the complicated dance between women’s positive and negative self-image. Several dancers duet with their own ¾ length rectangular mirror, carried by a partner. They move in tandem, the dancer holding mental control over the mirror’s movement as she silently admires or admonishes her body. As more dancers and mirrors float onto the stage, the mirrors gradually take control–even chasing their dancers–and a conflict arises: do I control my image or does my image control me?
The mirrors also served as spotlights, reflecting light from overhead and bouncing it around the stage. By the end of the mirror section, the stage is packed with young women dressed in black, white, and gray business attire–the evening’s most elegant costuming.
The mirrors exit and the dancers’ movements become emphatic and wild, as they physically struggle with their self-worth. I can hear the pulsing synthpop beat of “The Sun” by The Naked and the Famous. Roughness and tension in the bodies contrast with the elegance of the costuming and lighting, as we move toward an emotional climax. The piece ends as the dancers, holding their breaths with shoulders raised to their ears, let out a deep, exhausted sigh.
While Finley’s intention is clear, the overall image is often pixelated by a surplus of bodies. I was baffled by the decision to put so many dancers on this stage at once. Adequate spacing becomes impossible, though the dancers take great pains to keep things organized. After several near-accidents, two dancers ram head-first into each other at running speed, sending one veering off course. The lengthy piece has a strong foundation: the mirrors. But for its later sequence, it either needs more rehearsal, a larger stage, or fewer dancers.
There was compelling work in the concert that does not merit in-depth analysis, since its benefits are more aesthetic than cerebral. Summer Warrington’s “kool-aid” is terrifically precise while junior Natalie Piper’s “Sway” delivers the patterns and beauty of synchronized swimming. The inexplicably-titled “S.D.E.” by junior Madison Ann Parson was the show’s most energetic and pop-oriented.
I found the concert, on the whole, to be an entertaining one. Several credible and diverse choreographers were showcased as well as a many gifted young dancers. I am particularly impressed given that this is the work of undergraduates, few of whom are dance majors. I can only hope that the program continues to attract and develop such skilled dancers.
I am glad I came.
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Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is a local actor and member of the board of directors of Arts Access, Inc., which makes the arts accessible to people with disabilities. He holds an M.A.Ed. degree in Special Education from East Carolina University. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can also find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt, on Twitter @dkbritt85, and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.