2018 ‘Spring to Dance’ chock full of pleasant surprises

ST. LOUIS, MO — I came to this year’s Spring to Dance festival figuring the best-case scenario would be to experience nothing out of the ordinary. Dance St. Louis, the local presenting organization which has produced Spring to Dance for 11 years, had already cut the Spring to Dance line-up from three days to two, drastically trimming its programs and personnel for the 2017-18 season. Last year at the 10th anniversary Spring to Dance performances, then-executive director Janet Brown essentially admitted that Dance St. Louis was hemorrhaging money, and that necessary changes were being made to stop the bleeding.

Brown has since left, and the board of directors restructured the top executive and artistic jobs, opting instead for split positions in administration (Richard Dee); programs and community engagement (Christopher Mohnani); and artistic curation (Terence Marling).

I hoped for the best, but feared the worst; arts organizations who necessarily scale back sometimes find it impossible to rebound. So it was surprising and encouraging to see healthy audiences at Spring to Dance, and hear Mohnani announce that a 2018-19 season was not only happening, but expanding to four one-night-only concerts featuring St. Louis premieres. The 12th season of Spring to Dance, restored to its original three-day line-up, returns on Memorial Day weekend, and Dee, in his program note, said that outstanding debts are paid and the organization is once again running in the black.

So things appear to be looking up for Dance St. Louis.

It was the first of many pleasant surprises that would unfold over two evenings of double headers at the Touhill Performing Arts Center, a beautifully situated hilltop venue on the University of Missouri – St. Louis campus.

For the most part, each of the works presented were composed of small casts — solos, duets, trios and quartets — with a few larger ensembles saved for the end of each night, and the roster of 26 companies (plus 10 more in the theater’s lobby) was more concentrated to the Midwest than in previous years. It’s likely these practical decisions were largely driven by economic factors, but, deliberately or not, also lended some loose, overarching themes about the complexities within various types of relationships.

In addition to the duet “Pack: And for all the lost ones” by Greg Blackmon, DanceWorks Chicago also performed the group work “Ride” by Joshua Manculich | photo credit: Quinn Wharton

For several groups, the relationship at hand was between dance and music. Clinard Dance’s Farruca, opening the festival in the intimate Lee Theater, is a continuation of Wendy Clinard’s years-long investigation with percussionist Javier Saume, guitarist Marija Temo and violinist Steve Gibons. Clinard, a Flamenco dancer, positions her feet as the fourth instrument in a musical ensemble, giving equal time for each artist to offer his/her own cadenza.

Farruca is a work that could happen almost anywhere — one can envision a group of (very talented) friends meeting up for a backyard party and jamming together. I see Clinard’s as a more casual, rough-around-the-edges approach to flamenco than, say, Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, whose performance of Dame Libby Komaiko’s Bolero closed the festival Saturday night in the Annheuser-Busch Performance Hall. The showy Bolero, celebrating its 25th anniversary and including special performances from the company’s directors Irma Suarez Ruiz and Jorge Perez, is a crowd pleaser, for sure, with fans, and ruffles, and capes, and enough bravura to routinely brings audiences to their feet. And while this is a most exciting full-company version of Maurice Ravel’s climactic score inspired by sensuous Pablo Picasso paintings, I’m anxious for this group to start touring its current work. It’s not that Bolero feels dated, exactly, but maybe a little. And works like Defalla, Fuera de la Caja or Iroko better showcase Ensemble Espanol’s recent efforts toward innovation in contemporary Spanish dance.

Denver-based DAMAGEDANCE similarly used music as motivation in Gut, a trio mirroring Brad Meehan’s score on drum kit, as did Kansas City’s Jennifer Owen in her rendition of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 for the Owen/Cox Dance Group. Both could have benefitted from a more sophisticated approach to their scores, finding the nuances captured within each. In Gut, choreographer Jessica Taylor’s three dancers, dressed in primary colors, each characterized a part of the whole — glomming onto a specific rhythm from the drum set, building to a combined climax that took a bit too long to get to. Owen had the opposite problem, approaching Bach’s intricate structures with a wall of swirling balletic jazz dancing. More exciting than her movement invention was Owen’s use of space. She carved out intricate geometric structures which were more indicative of her typically thoughtful approach to music.

Notably absent from the festival was the St. Louis Ballet, leaving Big Muddy Dance Company and MADCO to represent for the local scene on the first evening’s main stage program. Big Muddy offered Robyn Mineko Williams’ moody suite of solos and duets called Channel Two, which premiered in April at the Grandel Theatre, while MADCO made full use of the theater’s large stage and close proximity to the first row in It is. Mid-way through the piece, dancer Natalie Williams draped her legs off the lip of the stage, seated alone in her translucent frock (by Felia Davenport), touching her heart. It’s a moment repeated by the full company later in this nearly half-hour piece by Gina Patterson. There’s a clear struggle going on here; It is is seemingly about power. The beginning sections oscillate between forceful interactions and tender ones; nurturing moments between dancers are followed by a repeated falling to the knees with their hands behind their heads, like a stick up. A section for the company’s women feels equally vulnerable as they delicately place their hands over their bellies, only for one to be grabbed by the crotch, man-handled as she’s tilted 90-degrees. It is was developed through a partnership with Washington University’s Special Collections Department, which has a vast archive related to the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matters Movements. As the resident company at the Touhill, which is less than five miles away from the site of where Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, MO, MADCO is plugging away at the hard and delicate work of relating dance to the socio-economic, racial and political climates within their community (something which, to my limited knowledge, had not yet been done by any of the city’s larger dance companies). It is is not the best I’ve seen of this kind of work. But it’s not the worst, either, by a long shot. For my part, I hope MADCO continues down this path.

Wewolf, directed by James Gregg and Rauf Yasit, returns to St. Louis for a one-night-only performance of “Henry and Edward” Sept. 15 at the Grandel Theatre | photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis

Additional festival highlights included Christine Rocas and Dylan Gutierrez’s inspired performance of the pas d’action from Giselle‘s 2nd act (a reminder of last October’s magnificent performance by the Joffrey Ballet); hip hop-meets-contemporary-meets-contortion in James Gregg and Matthew et Gibbs’ cringeworthy (in a good way) duet titled Inverse; and stellar performances, per usual, of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago staples Georgia and Pacopepepluto bookending the intermission in the final performance on Saturday.

New to me were promising works by Detroit-based Kristi Faulkner Dance and Project 44, an all-male company led by Gierre J. Godley in Queens, NY. Faulkner’s Miss Information and Godley’s Fraternity don’t have anything apparent to do with one another, but both seem to comment on the “man’s world” of corporate megalopolies, a cut-throat environment in which everyone is out for him/herself.

Which brings me back to this idea of relationships. Chicago Dance Crash extrapolated the Sisters duet I’d seen just two days earlier, while Danceworks Chicago brought a beautiful Greg Blackmon duet about the rage that comes with losing a loved one. Momenta dancer Kris Lenzo performed two works — one a solo and one a duet with Anita Fillmore Kenney — exploring his relationship with his wheelchair first and then his partner, as if to say one has to know and love himself before he can know another. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company dancer Sheri “Sparkle” Williams also looks inward in The Gatherer/weeThing, a set of back-to-back nearly identical solos set to opposing musical scores; meant to imply a conversation with the spiritual self.

The Seldoms in “Power Goes” | photo credit: Bill Frederking

But wait, there’s more: New York-based LaneCoArts offered a contemporary trio: a sort of boy-meets-girl, girl-meets-other-boy, original-boy-gets-mad-and-mansplains-to-girl love story; Ohio-based choreographer Robin Prichard brought a grab-bag of provocations in her solo for Kweku Bransah called The Art of Making Dances (Not About Ferguson), which, coincidentally, was titled that prior to presenting it to a welcoming audience a mile from Ferguson. The relationship tie-in? The piece’s juxtaposition to Flying Foot Forum’s down home quartet about death and dying in the style of Appalachian-esque soft shoe and tap dancing.

Additional performances included Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Stone Soup Rhythms, Kambre Contemporary Dance Company, an excerpt from The Seldoms’ excellent Power Goes and Ballet Memphis in a delightful group work called Sa Voix, which is charming, but fails entirely at living up to its noble program notes about liberating ballerinas from the oppressive sylph to give rise to the female voice in ballet.

Icing on the cake: two pas de deux. Chae Eun Yang (National Ballet of Canada) and Connor Walsh (Houston Ballet) drew the most ooos and ahs from the crowd in the White Swan pas de deux, but of the two pairs, my money’s on Adiarys Almeida and Taras Domitro in the Don Quixote grand pas, both of whom trained with Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

Header photo: The Joffrey Ballet’s Christine Rocas and Dylan Gutierrez in “Giselle,” photo by Cheryl Mann