New Dance Horizons is a triumph in Dance St. Louis’ lean year

ST. LOUIS, MO — The mission of Dance St. Louis, a presenting organization founded more than 50 years ago by Washington University professor of dance Annelise Mertz, is pretty simple: bring great dance to St. Louis. For the last decade, part of this effort has included a highly successful three-day festival at the Blanche M. Touhill Center for the Arts, on campus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) just outside the city’s center. Modeled after New York’s Fall for Dance festival, Spring to Dance has grown at a steady clip and brought notoriety and buzz to the city on the banks of the Mississippi River, the so-called “gateway to the west.”

St. Louis has become a desirable destination for touring, thanks in large part to Spring to Dance and the efforts of Michael Uthoff, who spearheaded the festival in 2007 and led the organization for ten years. At his last Spring to Dance nearly a year ago, it was announced by then-executive director Janet Brown that artistic consultant Terence Marling would be leading the charge for a seriously scaled back 2018-19 season. What we didn’t know at the time was that Brown would also make her departure from the organization, leading to the appointments of Richard Dee and Christopher Mohnani, who now form Dance St. Louis’ executive arm.

Since 2012, the New Dance Horizons series has paired choreographers with local companies in an evening of world premieres. This and Spring to Dance remain holdovers from Uthoff’s time at Dance St. Louis, with New Dance Horizons intended to harvest new work from within the community by nationally-recognized choreographers. The idea is to push local groups out of their comfort zones and introduce new aesthetics to dance audiences in the community.

The sixth installment of New Dance Horizons downsized from the majestic Touhill Center for the Arts for a two-show day Saturday at the Grandel Theatre, a comparatively intimate, 600-seat thrust with a cool lobby vibe. (Vibe = live music and a full bar and kitchen.) This year’s program presented three world premieres, choreographed by Robyn Mineko Williams, James Gregg and Gregory Dolbashian for the Big Muddy Dance Company, Modern American Dance Company (MADCO), and St. Louis Ballet, respectively.

As Marling explained in the pre-performance chat with Mohnani and the three featured choreographers, he approached the project by asking each company’s artistic director for feedback. “What do you need, and what do you want?” he inquired. Still, in this first of two curatorial efforts, Marling, who has spent the majority of his career thus far in and around Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, played his cards close to his chest.

The highly sought Mineko Williams has thrice been a Princess Grace awardee, the latest of which supported Mariko’s Magical Mix, a children’s show created for Hubbard Street 2 under Marling’s direction. Mineko Williams’ Channel Two, created for nine Big Muddy dancers, was the least surprising of New Dance Horizons’ three match-ups. But this company, currently led by another Hubbard Street alum, Brian Enos, is generally seen as a robust vehicle for Enos’ choreography, and perhaps better known for big, slightly jazzy group works (or at least that’s my experience with them). Channel Two offered a series of vignettes — perhaps meant to illustrate a flipping of TV channels. Many of these scenes entered from the house — solos and duos, mostly; as is often the case in Mineko’s work, smooth and silky dancing is accented by quirky gestures and contorted shapes. Set to a doo-wop-inspired score with casual pedestrian wear by Branimira Ivanova (a departure from her typically tailored leotards and dance dresses), Channel Two offers only peeks through the windows of these lives, leaving me wanting more in a good way.

James Gregg’s history as a performer permeates his choreographic sensibilities; particularly present in An Alternate You for MADCO is the influence of Victor Quijada’s Rubberband Dance. A trio of dancers (Darrell Van Hyche II, Taylor Nash and Natalie Williams) don dark navy pants and long-sleeved tops, accented by tuxedo stripes down their legs and arms. The theme is duality, though that’s a tough sell with three dancers who spend much of the dance joined at the hands and feet, winding themselves in knots or three-headed creatures. Gregg’s movement is ominous and low to the ground, accentuated by a Quijada-branded method of popping and locking. As they stretched and recoiled, dancing with their shadows on the Grandel’s cyclorama, I thought MADCO was looking better than ever; An Alternate You will likely have staying power as a diverse offering to the company’s rep.

St. Louis Ballet performs Gregory Dolbashian’s “Put it into Words” | photo credit: Carly Vanderheyden

Gregory Dolbashian’s Put it into Words, on the other hand, might never again see the light of day. It should. In prior viewings, I’ve found St. Louis Ballet to be the epitome of a mediocre regional ballet company: playing it safe with classical works and underwhelming, out-of-touch choreography. In the span of 15 minutes, my opinion of this group took a 180, thanks in no small part to committed theatricality and excellent dancing by Rebecca Cornett, Kate Rouzer, Michael Burke, Colin Ellis and Michael McGonegal. Like Mineko Williams, Dolbashian opted for smaller vignettes set to swanky lounge music. Duos half-mouthed the words to text recorded over the music — one a quarreling (but appeasing) couple, the other about the concessions, omissions, and compromises we make in conversation with others. Long, contemporary lines and a satisfying group phrase at the end served as a subtle call to action, and an invitation to face conflict head on. How surprising.

I continue to wonder at the role of Dance St. Louis, and its primary mission to bring great dance to this city. In so doing, does it elevate its community, or fail to acknowledge what is already there? Likely both, but New Dance Horizons (on the surface, at least), gets at filling some gaps without condescension. It remains to be seen if Dance St. Louis will (or should) bounce back to its former size and stature, but outside eyes and fresh energy might not have been a bad thing, for now. On the night before Easter, that lobby vibe was buzzing; a sense of excitement rolled over audiences and artists alike. To be fair, there was nothing that felt particularly unsafe or radical here, but the work moved toward a more engaged, plugged-in sensibility from St. Louis’ most influential dance organizations. How much New Dance Horizons influences them in the long run remains a question; still, it’s hard not to see Saturday as a victory here.

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