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Battleworks Dance Company opened its three-day ADF run in Reynolds Theater on July 11 with an infectiously exuberant program of seven dances. Made between 1994 and 2005, several pre-dated choreographer Robert Battle's formation of his company in 2002. Taken together, they give a good idea of the scope of Battle's concerns, his instinct to combine a lyrical dance vocabulary with a staccato one, and his wide-ranging musicality.
The evening opened with Alleluia (2002), set to music by J.S. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti. The company was all dressed in flowing white variations of cassocks, habits, and angelic robes by designer Mia McSwain, whose good work graced most of the dances, and the choreography was full of Christian connotations. There were lots of leaps and lovely extensions, combined with jumping and stamping sequences. The line of some of the positions was not quite as perfect as it might have been, and there was a little too much running in circles for my taste, but overall it was a beautiful piece. It combines humor and ritual in a charming way, explores spiritual practice as both a solo and a group activity, and builds to a truly ecstatic finish. Particularly notable were Jennifer Mabus, who must be the Energizer Bunny of the dance world; Kanji Segawa, who danced exquisitely; and the radiant Samuel Lee Roberts, who floats without apparent effort through beautiful leaps and turns in air.
Immediately following the numinous Alleluia was the earthy Strange Humors (1998), set to the pounding beats of a score by John Mackey. This duet for two men featured George Smallwood and Samuel Lee Roberts. It's a sexy piece of mutual seduction, and if Roberts had been any hotter he would have spontaneously combusted right there on the stage. My notes say: "Good God A'mighty!"
To allow us all to catch our breaths, the next piece was an hilarious little duet, Two (1994), danced by Kanji Segawa in bell bottoms and Robert Battle himself, in drag in a flowered house coat and a red wig. It started off with vintage Donna Summer and proceeded to Vivaldi. If you haven't laughed enough lately, don't miss this opportunity to howl: Old Antonio V works amazingly well for get-down disco. (This work will feature Jennifer Mabus with Battle on the 12th.)
Rounding out the first half of the program was the world premiere of the ADF commissioned Communion, set to Gregorian chants and music by Arvo Pärt. Unfortunately, for the recordings used for this piece, there was a really bad hum that was irritating and distracting, especially during Pärt's resonant bell sounds. Like Alleluia, the dance was replete with references to the rich rituals of Christian worship, and the pieces shared quite a bit of choreographic language. Communion is much more meditative, however, and contains many images of struggle – denoting, perhaps, the more difficult aspects of religious commitment. I thought the piece was a little rough in places, undoubtedly due to its newness.
By intermission, it had become clear that Battle cares deeply not only about music but also about feelings and relationships – between and among the dancers, and between bodies and spirits. It is not that he lacks for ideas, but he doesn't plague the audience with arid concepts, working instead much more directly through the body's wisdom. The second half opened – literally – with Unfold (2005), danced to a song by Gustave Charpentier. This very beautiful short work featured Clare Holland and Kanji Segawa and was a wonderful interpretation of the music – full of almost operatic swelling emotion and with arching shapes folding and expanding.
The tiny, powerful Jennifer Mabus danced the solo Takademe to percussive mouth music by Sheila Chandra. Extended dance solos are hard to pull off, but Mabus was riveting and the choreography, dynamic. Both were elastic and staccato in a curiously harmonious way. (Segawa will dance this role on the 12th.)
The evening ended with an awesome foursome in The Hunt, set to drum music by Les Tambours du Bronx. On July 11, it was danced by men – Samuel Lee Roberts, Kanji Segawa, George Smallwood, and Terrence A. Poplar – but on the 12th it will be performed by the company's five women. It is bound to be radically different. The men wore flared black ankle-length wrap skirts lined with red satin, which looked superb on their long tall legs, below their bare torsos. As they moved through Burke J. Wilmore's dramatic lighting patterns to the drums' ever-increasing speed and frenzy, the red inner skirts flipped into view and disappeared as the men swirled through pair and circle dances. There were many contractings and archings of bare chests, flashing arm movements, and leapings and stampings. This work was tremendously exciting, and it made a thrilling ending to a fine program.
Battleworks Dance Company continues its run at the ADF through 7/13. See our calendar for details.