October 3, 2007

Dance Animals

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In modern dance, the ability to conjure animals out of human forms is often derivatively mythic, if not crassly mimetic. However, when members of Garth Fagan Dance incorporate the gawky flapping strut of an emu or the off-kilter slapdash gait of a Jesus lizard into their routine, the result is less about evoking the spirit of animals and more about provoking the spirit to animism. Fagan, perhaps most famous as the Afro-Caribbean inspired choreographer behind the Broadway version of The Lion King, proved last Thursday night at the Schwartz Center that his dancers have more spunk in their menagerie of movements than a bevy of meerkats. But, the real joy to be had in their kinetic metamorphosis was how it summoned a primordial energy and channeled it to the audience.
The first dance, “Prelude,” began with a quiet solo by Norwood Pennewell, then picked up the pace with a tableaux of dancers coming on stage, accompanied by a recording by Max Roach and Abdullah Ibrahim, whose piano and marimba chords echoed like clear water-drops amid the jazzy, percussive cacophony. While four of the dancers repeated slow, fluid lines, an alternating fifth dancer punctured their equilibrium with violent windmilling arms or a slashing gyroscope of fists. As the tempo increased, a file of dancers exploded to spin like eggbeaters across the stage, then would suddenly whirl in the other direction, only to yo-yo back into their turn’s original direction. The propulsive crescendo ended with a quick blackout (thanks to lighting designer C.T. Oakes) that captured one dancer at the height of his leap so that he seemed to hover transcendently in the eye’s ghostly afterimage.
“Detail: Down Home Also,” which followed, allowed the audience to catch their breath. A short yet seemingly protracted dance duet performed by Norwood Pennewell and Nicolette Depass, it suffered from the choreography’s clichéd schmaltz, such as when the dancers clutched at invisible flowers. The dancers themselves were clutching to find chemistry, as well, as the strain evident in their legs only exacerbated the emotional strain that showed on their faces. A coldly abstract light projection of rectangles ironically dampened any of the romance that they may have generated. When the two dancers descended in each other’s arms at the end, Pennewell raised a hand to make a shadow puppet, furthering the ridiculous portrayal of the story-line.
“River Song,” however, returned to form, as three groups of dancers, clad in feathered Mohawks and tasseled spandex, competed in interweaving powwow circles. The different troupes revolved and chanted while a quick succession of individuals flew through the air and tumbled on the ground. The athleticism of the dancers was out of this world, yet the day-glo costumes by Linda King were decidedly pedestrian, making the company look like an audition for a third-rate YMCA cover band.
Nonetheless, humor and verve aplenty were to be had with “Translation Transition.” In the middle section’s pas de deus, the shorter, brawny Steve Humphrey lifted the tall and lithe Amazonian figure of Micha Scott, which managed to produce both comic contrast as well as a feeling of passion despite the odds. As the dance progressed, the troupe became infectious, gyrating their hips, flailing their shoulders, pullulating their chests, thrusting their torsos forward and sinuously snaking them back to the funky ska rhythms inflected by trombone slides and circus accordion music. During the finale, the dancers repeated a catchy, simple motif of tilting upward and rocking their hips from one foot to the other while they pointed their fingers, which felt bound to turn up at a club near you. The idea that Fagan actually wanted his audience to catch the spirit and dance themselves was reinforced when, after the standing ovation the dancers received at their curtain call, the troupe unexpectedly broke out into a continuation of their last dance as audience members clapped and swayed along to the beat. With the audience going wild, the troupe’s spiritual conjuration trick was complete.