For the second year in a row Olivier Wevers and his company Whim W'him were awarded top honors at the 14th annual Dance Under the Stars Festival. In a striking duo for two men danced by Andrew Bartee and Jim Kent, Wevers demonstrated that his instincts for intricate partnering and modernism in the Euro mold are striking responsive chords with festival audiences and adjudicators. Also returning from last season's competition were choreographers, Sophie Monat and Monat Dance, Petr Zahradnicek with the Milwaukee Ballet Company, and Terri Best with Terri Best Dance. Both Best and Zahradnicek presented duos on this year's concert program. The festival leans largely on work already produced in other venues. The number of returning finalists suggests that the festival needs to cast a wider net or, better yet, enhance its dedication to supporting choreographers by work shopping and premiering new work rather than simply validating choreography already in place. The festival also recognized Julie McDonald with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her groundbreaking work in establishing agency representation for dancers, crucial advocacy for improved working conditions and union support, and her involvement in producing The American Choreography Awards which ran from 1994 until 2004. She spoke eloquently about her personal history as a dancer, teacher, dance studio owner and talent agent for dancers.

While Dance Under the Stars has staked its claim on elevating choreographers, it was the dancing itself that proved more consistently notable in this year's program which, in some instances, didn't deliver professional level concert work and also labored in its production values as an awards program. Bringing the larger ensemble pieces to the stage were the Los Angeles area companies which included Monat Dance, Regina Klenjoski Dance Company, and Courtney Ozovek and her unnamed ensemble. The remaining works included five duos, and one solo piece choreographed and danced by Ingrid Graham for Collaboration Movement.

The following is a digest of the choreography from the Division One, which included ten finalists. Six of them are reviewed below.  

Terri Best Dance artists Joey Thao and Anh Dillon in "Threshold"
Joey Thao and Anh Dillon, Terri Best Dance, in "Threshold"

Setting the tone for the deepest sense of communication between two dancers was Terri Best's Threshold, which delivered a powerful and personal statement of connection. The work was premiered in Celebrate Dance 2011 and imagines the moment between sleeping and waking as a conduit to heightened awareness. The physical manifestation of that moment is a diagonal shaft of light which is projected onto the stage. Best's dancers, Anh Dillon and Joey Thao, are called on to navigate it as if on a high wire. The metaphor here is that with heightened perception come risks which are played out in the emotional and complex partnering. The work has deepened since I last saw it and the connection between Dillon and Thao was palpable in this performance. It felt like the most ardent and searching dancing on the evening's program and demonstrated how sophistication and technical excellence can amplify choreographic impulses.

Two male dancers, in red socks and shorts, and grey top, one jumping
Whim W'him "Monster"

The Grand Prize awardee Monster, by Olivier Wevers, was vividly yet simply costumed with the two dancers wearing high cut red trunks and socks and light grey, long sleeved tee shirts. Wever has an adventurous sense of partnering and achieves it with a physicality that at times makes one unit out of the two dancers. Monster is part of a triptych of duos, the first part appearing here as a stand-alone movement. The work deals with internalized (and negative) issues of homosexuality. Yet here, in the absence of its companion sections which deal with abusive relationships and addiction, it could look like a conventional play on the possibilities of two men partnering one another in close contact with particular attention accorded to the beautifully executed sections of unison movement. Wevers uses the recurring physical gesture, (a hand covering the face) as a metaphor for an inner torment or a reflection of hurt. It hinted at European contemporary dance models in style and execution. The choreography unfolded against the dark, sliding and minimalist orchestral score composed by Max Richter. The work was premiered earlier this year in Seattle.

Sophie Monat Dance ensemble in blue costumes on stage
Monat Dance in "vista"

Monat Dance opened the evening with Vista, which is an excellent neo classical ballet set to Bach's A Minor Violin Concerto. I had reviewed it previously in a performance of Fusion (CSULB) at The Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach. Unfortunately, it was performed for this concert minus the third movement. The piece lives up to its title with ever changing combinations of dancers and unexpected transitions that open our outlook onto the music and comment intelligently on the concerto's flow of solo and orchestral sections. The cast of six women and three men were excellent. The work en pointe was first rate and the sliding figures were danced with abandon. In general this Vista looked more polished than in the Long Beach performance. The performance was awarded the festival's second place recognition.

Regina Klenjoski Dance Company in Emoticons reprised a shortened version of the work which in its full length version was seen first in Celebrate Dance 2011 and was reviewed as part of Truths (June 2011). Truths was co-produced with The Armstrong Theatre in Torrance. Emoticons stood out for its psychological underpinnings and movement vocabulary which veered away from standard forms and embraced a contemporary modern dance esthetic. Danae McWatt as part of the five member cast was excellent in her solo role as the breakaway-dancer, delivering a sense of believable dislocation. Her ability to act as well as dance gave substance to the role. Also excellent were Deven P. Brawley and Anna DeVuyst in their solo sections. Evocative costuming (Denise Lichter), lighting (Eileen Cooley), and an original electronic score by David Karagianis gave Emoticons its edgy appeal and sense of disconnection. One could have wished for more truly adventuresome work like it on the evening's program.

Courtney Ozovek with an all-female cast of four dancers closed the evening in Who I Was. Her work was well designed around a collage of three musical pieces by Followed by Ghosts, Balmorhea (Constellations), and Silver at Zion. The movements, often rolling in an undulating flow, set up a continuously evolving interplay between a group of three and a soloist, played by Melanie Hansel. The work deftly outlines the process of a person shedding old skins and finally moving on. The piece opens with a long solo danced by Hansel which gradually draws the dancer into an ever shrinking physical sphere. The remaining sections of the work, in a sense, undo that process. The four women in the cast which included Tracy Bernarndo, Cassie Cole and Lauren Zimmerer proved a powerful, dynamic ensemble. Some technical aspects of the limited lighting available proved a distraction for Who I Was. The women were beautifully costumed in black and burgundy tops with draped, cut away skirts. The designs were by Theona White.

duet performing Petr Zahardnicek's piece "1 run 2"
Joshua Reynolds and Rachel Malehorn, Milwaukee Ballet Company / Petr Zahardnicek, in "1 run 2"

Receiving recognition with the Paid Engagement Award was Petr Zahardnicek in 1 run 2, presented by the Milwaukee Ballet Company. The work, danced by Rachel Malehorn and Joshua Reynolds was the single offering on the program in which humor was a motivating ingredient. Danced to the chamber music of Vivaldi and Respighi, 1 run 2 combines equal measures of theater and movement in a scenario that was as delightful as it was thin. We follow the two dancers as they try to build a tower using two sets of small blocks. Malehorn proved more adept at carrying the comedy as well as connecting with the audience. Costuming by Mary Piering (which dressed both in dancers in ersatz period garb—bloomers and corset top for her and front panel button up pants for him), was clever and found resonance with both the music and the humor.

Dance Under the Stars has a varied program of educational and choreographic roles including a second tier choreography division which plays the day following the awards program. You can visit the website for additional information. One can hope that future concerts will allow choreographers to present works in their entirety. After all, if choreography is truly the name of the game, let's at least have unedited exposure. I for one would have loved to have seen all of Monster. Maybe next time.

Read previous reviews of Emoticons and Vista on DancePlug.

(The reviewed performance took place on Saturday November 12, 2011 at The McCallum Theatre, Palm Desert)

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