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Battleworks Dance Company returned to Duke's Reynolds Theater, the venue of the group's triumphant 2005 American Dance Festival performances, to throw yet another sidelight on Thelonius Monk, the jazz great whose work has been explored from many angles during Duke Performances' enlightening Following Monk series. The company reprised two dances from the 2005 program in this six-work concert, which emphasized the staccato, be-bop aspect of Battle's choreography.
None of these dances were performed to Monk's music, but they were what you could call Monk-ish in attitude. The Juilliard-trained Robert Battle, who formed his company in 2002, has many musical affinities. New jazz is among them, including music by John Mackey (the contemporary composer who frequently writes for dance companies, not the CEO of Whole Foods), who scored Promenade and the impressive Mood Indigo.
The three sections of Mood Indigo — "Sweet Release," "Sour Heart," and "Bitter Jig" — are all for two dancers, and a different man-woman couple dances each. They don't comprise a narrative so much as a progression, and the work doesn't so much end as stop, as if this remnant had been snatched from the ongoing flow of sound and motion and feeling taking place in a parallel universe. The first section is dark and sharp. The floor pulls the dancers down, exerting extra gravity and requiring a propulsive force from the dancers to jet away from its demands. The second section, danced by George Smallwood and Marlena Wolfe, offered the most amazing images of the evening. Smallwood, in full backbend, forms a tunnel with his body, through which Wolfe dives and wriggles, while they move across the stage in tandem. This demanding and disturbing sequence recurs, sometimes seeming threatening, entrapping, and other times seeming protective or passionate.
Also standing out on the program were the snappy opener, Baseline, and the engaging and humorous Promenade. Baseline's music is by Victor Goines, and this dance fully catches the jazz spirit of the music. Promenade — set to another John Mackey composition bristling with rhythm — features eight dancers in sheer white suits or dresses with bustles and corsets. They shake and shimmy, jump and bob like automatic animals. As the dancers twirl through the ritual antics of boy and girl, they also sashay humorously through well-crafted bits of various social dance forms.
Battle is a very smart choreographer (he has just received the Princess Grace Statue Award and $25,000 to underwrite new work) who can synthesize material from different traditions into fresh new forms, and his work fit very well into Following Monk's wide-ranging explorations. This mind-expanding cultural programming around an idea or theme is exactly the kind of thing that universities, uniquely, have the resources to do, and should be doing with some of their performance series. Duke Performances has set a standard with this series (ending on October 28) that will be hard to live up to.