DANCE UNDER THE STARS presented its yearly choreography competition this past weekend with a festival presentation of eleven performances by local and national choreographers. Those traveling from beyond the Southland to present their works included Thodos Dance Chicago, Sonia Dawkins Prism Dance Theatre and Whim W'Him (both from Seattle), Milwaukee Ballet Company, and Creative Outlet Dance Theatre from Brooklyn, New York. And while you could have wished for a broader spectrum of genres in a festival of this size, the choreography veered mostly toward contemporary dance with a little theater dance on the side and a lone offering from the ballet world. Too many of the compositions were weak either in content or performance and in the end it was an easy business to see who the winners were going to be. Along with the awards presentation and performances, the evening featured a bland video tribute to American dancer, Eugene Loring, which focused heavily on his career in choreography for the musical theater and film.

Whim W'him was awarded the Grand Prize for Fragments. The choreography was by Olivier Wevers (Belgium) currently a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet. Fragments puts forward a smart mix of contemporary ballet and theater dance which twists the standard notion of the grand pas deux into a new mold. The hybrid is at once unexpected, campy and pathos laden. It was danced with great virtuosity by Kelly Ann Barton and Vincent Lopez who managed to find comedy, connection and catharsis in the piece's four sections. The music used arias from the Mozart operas and the moving Ave Verum Corpus in alternating sections, including two which featured each dancer alone. Lopez was astonishing in his solo section (Ave Verum Corpus) which imagines the crushing dislocation and hurt of stifling gender roles and perhaps, by extension, any role where expectation proves damaging. His twisting and broken portrayal was the evening's single standout performance. It had all the more impact placed within the context of the piece's three other campy and parodying movements. The combination of edgy costuming and exceptional dancing proved that the performance can matter as much as the movement. The striking lighting was designed by Michael Mazzola.

Choreographer Melissa Thodos (Thodos Dance Chicago) was awarded the second place prize for Cascade, with music by Maurice Ravel (Jeux d'Eau). It was the only classically inspired piece on the program and pairs two sets of partners. Thodos captured the rich hued impressionism of Ravel's music in her lyrical and ornate choreography which at times was overfilled with intricate partnering as it attempted to match the sheer abundance of music in Ravel's piano miniature. Cascade was capably danced by Sharon Joyce Kung, Joshua Manculich, Jessica Miller Tomlinson and Wade Schaaf. The piece was originally seen as a commission for The Ravinia Festival 2007 One Score.

Returning to DANCE UNDER THE STARS with Close[r] was choreographer Mike Esperanza and BARE Dance Company. His large ensemble piece for nine dancers had an exceptional cast and operated effectively as couples and in larger unison sections. The title plays on a double meaning which riffs on connection and finality. Esperanza assembles his company in large and small groups in a lengthy piece which uses his own music, a combination of electronic sounds and piano, to distill his abstract intentions. The costumes (also by Esperanza) used a kind of mismatched gray and off white scheme. The design helped both to define individual couples and create an overall monochromatic unity for the company. I found the movement style and content original and cohesive. They looked the most like a company with an idiomatic movement sense and style. My money would have been on BARE Dance Company as the best the evening had to offer if only for the scale of the choreography and the fact that Wevers' dance making leaned heavily on European dance models (Bausch and Kylian) for its underpinnings. Esperanza and company were awarded the Paid Engagement prize for Close[r]. The dancers were: Ellie Biddle, Lauren Cannon, Jesse Chin, Jovan Dansberry, Felicia Kelly, Kate Overholt. Charles Roy, Cheryl Smith and Shea Stanton. The somber and shadowy lighting design was created by Johnny Garofalo.

Creative Outlet Dance Company which won the first prize in last year's program returned with Waiting by Jamel Gaines. The piece lacked a sense of cohesion and the dancing failed to capture the hoped-for political and social content. It was something of a world apart from last year's forceful and mature performance. Also making an impression was Terri Best and Through the DESERT. Best is a thoughtful choreographer but her composition was probably not the right vehicle for a competition festival where extroverted fare usually succeeds. Through the DESERT was an effective ensemble piece. The large cast played well as a weighty counter balance to the spare balladry of Sinéad O'Connor's I Do Not Want what I Haven't Got. Spare lighting and costuming were both by Best. The choreography, somewhat changed in this performance, was seen last year in the Pasadena Dance Festival.

MIND the Gap (Eboni Adams, the Yellow Cup Project),There for YOU Petr Zahradnicek, Milwaukee Ballet Company) and Linkage (Sonia Dawkins) also offered choreography with good ideas and worthy performances. In the future it would be good to see fewer pieces on the program, and some thought directed to putting up small and large compositions on separate programs or at least on separate halves of the same program. Still, if it's the potpourri you're after, an evening at the McCallum Theatre with DANCE UNDER THE STARS is still a good place to look. Terri Best Dance, Creative Outlet Dance Theatre, and BARE Dance Company will be returning to Los Angeles with new works as featured companies in Jamie Nichols' CELEBRATE DANCE at the Alex Theatre, March 12, 2011.

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