ARC Dance is in a familiar place for small ballet-based dance companies – they have a substantial collection of impressive performers, and an ongoing need for new works they can dance. In the past, most chamber companies depended on restaging existing repertory, from cut-down versions of the classics through the innovations of the Ballet Russe generation. Currently, though, as we continue to clarify what we mean by contemporary ballet, the emphasis is on new choreography that explores those possibilities. Artistic Director Marie Chong has been commissioning new works for ARC since its founding in 1999, as well as making a substantial number of them herself. While some of these have primarily been learning experiences, the company has accumulated a small standing repertory that can help clarify what contemporary means in the first part of the 21st century.
Chong selected opening work, Que, from that standing rep as a tribute to its choreographer, Kabby Mitchell III, a long-time member of the Seattle dance community who died last spring. It was one of the first works that Chong commissioned for her new company. Its style, full references to different dance genres and dead cool attitude, reflects its time and Mitchell’s own background. Like many African American men in dance, his training encompassed a wide variety of traditions, most of which are on display in Que. With ballet, modern, African, and jazz elements, he chose the technical material thoughtfully for a young ensemble – the current members took on its challenges with seeming effortlessness.
Chong and colleague Kirk Midtskog each created one of a complementary pair of solos that sit in various spots on the spectrum of contemporary dance. Chong’s Something Fun, set to a cover of Lennon and McCartney’s “Blackbird,” is indeed a pleasure, but a complex one. De’Von Doane has a playful approach and an easy manner in performance, but the rhythmically tricky material is far from relaxing. Despite being made in 2010, Midtskog’s A Short Bouree could easily have come from the early modern dance repertory. Both its fundamental nobility and its fidelity to its score (a guitar transcription of Bach’s E minor “Bouree”) reflect that aesthetic – at moments, Doane resembled old studio portraits of José Limón. A guest from Dance Theatre of Harlem, Doane brought considerable skill to both solos.
Gérard Théorêt’s Recurring is a dreamy landscape, full of suggested relationships and veiled possibilities. The fluid nature of his movement vocabulary, both on and off pointe, reinforces this ambiguity. You can look for stories, for narrative chains, and you’ll find multiple possibilities. But you can also just indulge in the kinetic flow, and you’ll be equally rewarded. Ballet is the shared vocabulary here, but it’s not used for its virtuosic potential. Instead, it links the individuals onstage, and helps create their world – this is a place where people move in a certain way. The three couples meet and part, but we don’t know if their experiences live in the real world or in their imaginations. The work ends with the same phrase it began with, a pair of dancers side by side, but not together. We’re not sure if the events in between are destined to repeat as well.
Guest choreographers Alex Ketley and David Fernandez each created a new work for the ensemble. Ketley’s The End (Study in Action 4) opens with the dancers seated around the periphery of the stage. Accompanied by a contemplative score by Max Richter, they perform in solo and small groups that seem to be as much for each other as for the audience. They act as witnesses for each other, like members of a support group they watch without judging. The movement is highly articulated and specific, but not classical in shape or in dynamics. With legs and feet turned in just so, and few standard gestures, the work highlights the dancers’ skills outside of the codified vocabulary, which makes the occasional conventional partnering come as a surprise. When the score resolves into a waltz, the dancers respond with the traditional social dance – when the waltz is finished, the work is as well.
In About That Glass, Fernandez makes a number of experiments within ballet vocabulary for a collection of vignettes. A set of projected images drawn from geometric elements hover above the dancers, suggesting traffic patterns in the choreography. The score, compiled from excerpts by Hildur Gudnadottir, Vladimir Martynov, and Todd Raynolds, is primarily atmospheric, with occasional rhythmic emphasis that adds emotional depth to those moments, bringing the dancers come into focus as they respond to the timing. Like Ketley’s work, the dancers are both performers and witnesses, keeping an eye on their colleagues and performing for them. The variety of the score reinforces an episodic quality to the structure – we see individual sections more clearly than an overall development. The dancers emerge from the ensemble with cleanly crafted gestures, but it’s less clear how those relationships develop over the course of the work.
Wade Madsen has a talent for making popular culture seem profound. In Black and White, he combines elements from the Peanut’s Christmas special dance party and Bob Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity to make a gentle parody of the 1960s. With the opening chord to the Beatle’s “Hard Day’s Night” ringing in our ears, he orchestrates twitching hips and shimmying shoulders into an antiphonal chorus, while giving each dancer their own moment to shake their Dynel hairpiece. The cast vibrates like a stage full of wind-up toys, while the inevitable structure of the pop song buoys us along, and sends us home happy.
ARC Dance Autumn 47
ARC Dance Performing Space
October 12, 2017