Duke Dance presented a thoroughly delightful program in Reynolds Theater on April 1 (repeated on April 2, with a few cast changes). The Choreolab 2006 concert, which included new works by and for Duke Dance faculty and by and for student dancers, was a smorgasbord of styles and moods but was laid out so well that the overall feeling was one of harmony. After the last few weeks of horror and shame associated with Duke, it was just plain wonderful to watch these "other athletes" in their multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-disciplinary adventures in dance.
The evening opened with M'Liss Dorrance's Fling, set to music by Malcolm Arnold (Four Scottish Dances, Op. 59, excerpts from Four Irish Dances, Op. 126, and Four Welsh Dances, Op. 138). The large female ensemble was about as Celtic as your cat, and they were dancing in pointe shoes, not ghillies, but they leapt and jigged with a fine spirit in their little plaid skirts (by designer Melody Eggen). Dorrance had made some very nice dances for them, but unfortunately, the tight spacing on the stage muddled the patterns a bit. Davis Hasty, the sole male dancer, was like a bee in a bevy of blooms, and was particularly attractive in his duet with ballerina Lindsay Davis.
Following this efflorescence of young energy was a spare, sparking work choreographed and danced by recent graduate Victor G. Jeffreys II and current junior Quinn H. Lipton. Em Esaeler, set to Radiohead's "Morning Bell," is a fantastic dance! Beginning and ending with two bodies in a pile, it is what you might call a yoga-enhanced modern dance. Some demanding and dramatic yoga postures are interspersed with more usual types of modern movements to exciting effect, and the dancers moved like new rubber bands, stretching and snapping, a zing in every motion. Jeffreys, it seems, will be moving on to medical school, but Lipton intends to stay with dance, so if we are lucky, we will see more of her work in this area.
Barbara Dickinson, director of the Duke Dance program, was next with the premiere of choreographer Jim May's work, Footsteps to Heaven. The piece is a little too much a dance about dance to be perfectly to my taste, and the ending dribbled off rather sadly, but Dickinson moves so beautifully that one could take pleasure in the work, even while cudgeling one's brain to come up with conceptual links among the three musical accompaniments: Eddie Duchen's "I Won't Dance," Stravinsky's "Tango," and a Schubert song (unidentified). I gave up on that, and focused on Dickinson's graceful, economical motions. As she has aged, she has learned secrets of distillation, so that even her slightest gesture or attitude has intoxicating power.
Lindsay Davis and Davis Hasty reappeared for M'Liss Dorrance's short ballet Aztec Pony, set to music by H. Owen Reed. They both danced well in this playful, amusing piece. Davis was charming as the long-legged pony, dashing around the stage.
Ending the first half of the evening was a wonderful work by Keval Kaur Khalsa, Ath-Nuadhadh (Renewal). Danced by seven women in flowing flame orange dresses, it was set to a medley of old Gaelic songs and African-American spirituals, which were performed on the stage by Lois Deloach and Michael Newton, vocals, Timothy Holley, cello, and Lucas Campbell, percussion. Drawing on the dance styles accompanying both those musical traditions, the choreographer has woven a lovely new cultural form — American and Southern. The music and the dance together made a deeply satisfying performance.
Opening the second half was Melissa Hayden's Gershwin Medley, re-staged by M'Liss Dorrance. Set to selections from Girl Crazy and Oh, Kay, the piece is charming and bright, and the ensemble had good swing and synchronization, although again they seemed a little crowded on the stage. The energetic Lindsay Davis gave a sassy solo, vamping and prancing with innocent good humor.
Live music returned for two works that form the "Let's Tango Project," with Hsiao-Mei Ku, violin, Benjamin Ward, piano, Jia-Yi He, harmonica, and Leonid Zilper, cello. They played first Verano Porteno (A. Piazzolla) and Inspiracion (P. Paulus), both arranged by Alsina for Tyler Walters' Two Tango Lessons. In the first, Walters does the horizontal tango by himself on the floor; for the second, he remains laid out on the floor while Patricia Ross and Sandra McCreery dance tango variations around and over him. Dancing about tango seemed a trifle academic to me, but the music was swell.
Then came Oblivion, choreographed and danced by L.D. Burris and Keval Kaur Khalsa (Two Near the Edge), and set to Piazzolla's Oblivion and Alsina's Dancing Tango. Here was no wry exercise but a man and a woman dancing a tango, no matter that there were a few non-traditional moves here and there. One expects some serious sizzle to a tango, and as they always have, Two Near the Edge exhibited that. I have been a big admirer of this group since way back, and they are still marvelous together after all these years. We'll always want to see fresh, lithe young bodies dancing, but it is also wonderful to see well-aged bodies, too. They may not jump as high, but they know so much more.
The evening ended with the happy, rousing Soli, choreographed by Ava LaVonne Vinesett based on rhythms from the Susu and Malink groups in West Africa. The drummers were Fahali Igbo, Ibrahim Sylla, and Richard Vinesett, and the otherwise female dance troupe was balanced by the redoubtable Thaddeus Bennett. Unlike Ath-Nuadhadh (Renwal), Soli is fully African in its rhythms — but also fully American in the range of color and ethnicities of its dancers. As this diverse group of glowing young Duke students shimmied and shook, challenging and praising one another in a complex group dynamic, all I could think was — the university really needs to make dance a required minor for all lacrosse players. They might learn something about what it means to be on the human team, and maybe even how to play the games with a good heart, as these dancers showed us to such joyous effect.