Contemporary is king on first night of Spring to Dance

ST. LOUIS, MO — With nightly performances through Saturday at the Touhill Performing Arts Center, the annual Spring to Dance festival is slowly building to a boil, spending much of its first day of programming firmly locked into contemporary dance. You had to make it to the end to see anything else, with the second of two programs — 6 p.m. in the intimate Lee Theater and the main stage show at 7:30 p.m. in the Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall, not to mention a slew of community performers dancing in the lobby each evening — concluding with a rousing performance of the Diana and Acteon pas de deux from Esmeralda by Nadia Mara and Jared Tan of the Atlanta Ballet and an energizing hip-hop dance by nearly 35 members of the Boom Crack! Dance Company based on the gangs that pillaged Chicago following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

These were not unwelcome diversions from an otherwise full night of contemporary dance, though the range of performances leading up to that point offered a depth and breadth of styles and approaches to the genre. To be sure, there will be audience pleasers galore this weekend, but a few unexpected gems emerged Thursday evening in a night designed to pique curiosity and revel in the beautiful and the bizarre.

On the former end of that spectrum were works by Missouri Contemporary Ballet (MCB) and The Dancing Wheels Company, though it’s unfair to call either of these dances just pretty. In a beefy work by Penny Saunders, MCB gave a gutsy performance of Awry, a dance based on the 2017 solar eclipse, which many reports said was best viewed in this company’s home town of Columbia, MO. Many of the markers of a Saunders work are present here, particularly in her unparalleled talent for painting the stage with sweeping brushstrokes and intricate partnering. Layered in are several passes of running at full speed, the idea being that the eclipse, for that brief time, messed with the flocking patterns of air-born, migratory creatures.

James Morrow created Neither Lost Nor Found for Cleveland’s Dancing Wheels from an examination of texts by Martin Niemöller, a German theologian most known for his vocal dissent of the Nazi regime. I’ve admired Morrow’s work as a solo artist for a few years, which is a thoughtful hybrid of hip-hop and contemporary dance, but had yet to see a group work. And this one is a gem in the repertory of this nearly 40 year old mixed-ability company, which has often been part of the bill at Spring to Dance. Morrow’s strong use of gesture and seamless partnerships between the seated and standing dancers in the company offer a deeper comment on Niemöller’s words in the 1930s about speaking out for those who face persecution and injustice, even when doing so doesn’t directly impact or apply to you.

The Dancing Wheels Company in “Neither Lost Nor Found,” photo by Scott Shaw

Chicago is always well-represented at Spring to Dance, with Boom Crack!, Visceral Dance Chicago and DanceWorks Chicago kicking off the contingency of eight Windy City companies appearing in the festival. Performing in the Lee Theater, Visceral’s duet, Keep, by artistic director Nick Pupillo for dancers Braeden Barnes and Meredith Harrill is a most elegant of “I love you, I hate you” contemporary pas de deux, while DanceWorks’s Swans, by former River North Dance Chicago dancer Hanna Brictson, is a hilarious transformation of Swan Lake inspired by the summer Olympic Games. Brictson certainly isn’t the first person to satirize Tchaikovsky’s dramatic swells into something ridiculous — semi-recent efforts by Matter Dance Company and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago come to mind — but she’s proving to be a master of comedic timing with this, plus the quirky mob she created for Dance for Life last year. Combined with the all-in attitude DanceWorks’s young flock brings to its work, this goggle-clad terrestrial swimming routine to the Waltz of the Swans (plus a nudge at track stars and gymnasts) is jocular brilliance on stage.

Junichi Fukunda’s moody solo Dismell and Micaela Taylor’s Drift finished off the quartet of strong performances in the Lee Theater, each a sort of psychological trip flirting with styles that look like derivations of gaga. The former is a more serious iteration, exploring the guttural reactions of animals, including humans, in distress. While there is certainly an outpouring of anguished emotion in Fukunda’s hyperbolic extensions, nearly bending his body in half as his mouth opens wide in a silent scream, Dismell exhibits a degree of control beneath all this, present in the tick-tock of his knees, or his return, again and again, to a single down pool of light on the stage.

The Los Angeles-based Taylor, who was justifiably named one of Dance Magazine‘s “25 to Watch” in 2019, is a clear product of her lineage with BODYTRAFFIC and Ate9, integrating popping and contemporary with her unpinning classical training to create a crystal clear and spectacularly weird aesthetic which neither basks in its oddities nor wholly commits to virtuosity.

MADCO opened the main stage performance with Untied, a hair-down, exaggerated frolic set to a live score that sounded like a blend of Africa and Asia with drums and Gamelan-sounding symbols and chimes. Dayton Contemporary Dance Company followed with Crystal Michelle’s Stump-Speach, a piece embodying the melodic lines of the trumpet, clarinet and piano in Wynton Marsalis’s The Death of Jazz. And the surprise of the evening? Brooklyn’s Bennyroyce Dance performing artistic director Bennyroyce Royon’s In Pursuit. Set to a rather obnoxious score by Philip Glass, Royon pulls at all the right threads of the incessantly loud and repetitive Music in Similar Motion. The music doesn’t lend itself to transitions, evolving so slowly over its 12 minutes that you hardly notice it change. The charge of a choreographer tackling it is to build on and amplify the subtle changes that are there, and, at intervals, abandon ship completely. Royon makes smart choices as to when to flow with that hypnotic pulse and when to ignore it, creating openings for his audience to pause, breathe, and let the drone of it all wash over you.

Spring to Dance continues tonight and Saturday at the Touhill Performing Arts Center, 1 University Place Dr., St. Louis. Single tickets are $5-$35, available at

Header image: Bennyroyce Dance, photo courtesy of Dance St. Louis

Author: Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter for NPR affiliate station WGLT and freelance arts and culture critic, primarily reviewing dance for the Chicago Tribune. Lauren enjoys cooking, cycling and attempting to grow things in her backyard. She lives in central Illinois.