The fourth annual Massachusetts Dance Festival, held over the past weekend at UMass, is one of the rare events in the region that make you forget the remoteness of Amherst from fine arts hubs such as Boston and New York. Indeed, the eleven dance companies that put on a fast-paced, eclectic two-night gala concert last Friday and Saturday reminded us that Massachusetts, despite having a reputation for producing but not keeping top-notch dancers, still has a vibrant dance scene that more people ought to learn about and appreciate.
Freshness defined the gala concert. Rand Theater, a venue mostly for theater productions at UMass, recently received a face-lift and Friday’s concert saw its debut as a dance performance space. The pristine floor looked fantastic under the lights and, believe it or not, added to the aesthetics of the performance. In addition, all eleven works performed were created in the past three years, and some of the companies consisted of dancers under 18 years, such as Artistic Dance Conservatory Youth Ensemble, the opening act of Friday’s concert. Going against the style of commercially-oriented dance competitions that dominate their peers, the ADC’s young dancers instead performed a short piece that required significant maturity. “Frozen Angels” used diagonal lines and white silks to create a constant exercise of tension and release. Even though the cast was perhaps too green to pin down shades of angst, the dancers brought commendable technique and dedication.
In contrast to ADC Youth Ensemble’s quiet energy, Legacy Dance Company radiated irresistible charm and vigor in their basketball-themed tap dance number, “Ball Change.” If the double-entendre in the title (ball change is also a basic move in tap dance) is any indication, this work’s ingeniously play with rhythm and sound embraced a humorous intelligence that put a smile on the audience’s faces. Led by the choreographer and popular instructor Ryan P. Casey, the three-person cast created a luxuriant soundscape with not only clean footwork, but also the crisp bounces of the ball and the light thud of catches that translated into a marvelous display of possibilities, all of which in good fun. It was unlike any tap dance I have ever seen.
The humor of “Ball Change” found its counterpart in “Matting Rituals,” a cheeky parody of yoga by Chaos Theory Dance choreographed by Billbob Brown, Director of Dance Program at UMass. “Matting Rituals” poked fun at the fervor of yoga enthusiasts, especially those, who, like the dancers themselves, are not exactly at their physical prime anymore. The characters’ physical struggle with prototypical yoga moves and exaggerated desire to prove they still “got it” — as demonstrated by the brightly-colored costumes and dubstep music — offered a pungent commentary to the American obsession with youthful beauty. Along with the self-deprecation beneath the flashy, irreverent choreography, “Matting Rituals” is a ditty with a reflective undertone.
Sharing such reflection was Deadfall Dance’s “Beauty,” a one-woman act in which movements complemented projections of commercial representations of female bodies to hint at their effects on self-image. “Exhibit A” by IBIT Dance Company dove further into the issue by confronting body image anxiety up front. The dancers, refreshingly of different body types and sizes, moved amidst mirrors and a chair as if they were in their own bedrooms. Mixed with music, the spoken word in the background contained confessions of youngsters wrestling with their self-evaluation of appearances. But the night’s most serious statement came from Annie Kloppenberg and Company, whose “Bigger, Faster, Better” infused both the physicality and the psyche of athleticism into a work at once personal and sophisticated. Dressed in black sports jacket and tutus, the two performers progressed through increasingly dynamic and intimate scenes, where the dual aspirations of dancers and athletes propelled them to chase after light or one another. Aided by the frequent use of spotlights, the duet maintained an almost sacred space on stage to tell the audience their story. Less subtly oriented in narratives was “Stay” by Eclipse Dance Company, a teenage love story danced in opposite-sex duets. Though not quite technically on par with the rest of the performers, the company gave a sweet rendition of the title song by Sara Bareilles.
Yet not all works in the concert concerned themselves with storytelling. “Raices” by Marsha Parilla/Danza Organica, for instance, celebrated no other than movement itself through a West African choreography that drew inspirations from contemporary and jazz dance. “Remnants” by Audra Carabetta and Dancers spent the majority of stage time exploring how movements build and transform on different bodies, layering basic phrases on top of each other to create fluid, organic sequences. And the Movery threw some intriguing compositions into their “Thank You Branch,” without revealing any clue to the air of mystique. The true highlight of the night, however, did not come until the very end, where “Quanta” by the BoSoma Dance Company elevated the power and allure of physicality to the highest point. Without any gimmicks or ostensible plot lines, “Quanta” mesmerized the audience with its intensity and sensuality that echo the legacy of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, particularly that of choreographer Ulysses Dove. Max Richter’s “November” enhanced the cinematic ambience of the work and sent the work to a high final note.
These gala concerts were only a fraction of what Massachusetts Dance Festival had to offer. The Festival also featured master classes by Broadway maven Eric Sciotto and Sidra Bell, artistic director of Sidra Bell Dance New York, who is staging a new work (of which I am a cast member) to be performed at the dance faculty concerts at Mount Holyoke, Smith and UMass this fall. In addition, several classes throughout the weekend in tap (led by the aforementioned Ryan P. Casey), ballet, contemporary and Hip Hop gave the general public a taste of dancing with the stars, all at very affordable prices. If you are around next year, do not miss this.