This past weekend, the fall season of dance in Dallas started off with two very different shows from two very different companies. In the Arts District, Dallas Black Dance Theatre opened its 2014-15 season with The Director's Choice series; in Deep Ellum, Muscle Memory Dance Theatre opened its season with two Dallas premieres from guest choreographers. Each show intended to illustrate the future direction each of these companies --both during this present season and in the many that will hopefully follow. Which seemed fitting as both are going through monumental changes.
Dallas Black Dance Theatre welcomes a new Artistic Director, April Berry. This was the first performance she directed and many people waited with bated breath to see how her vision would line up with Ann Williams', who founded and directed DBDT for 37 years. Founded in 1976 by Williams, DBDT's mission is to create and produce contemporary modern dance at its highest level of artistic excellence through performances and educational programs that bridge cultures and reach diverse communities. Berry has some big shoes to fill--I mean, Williams just had a street named after her--and if The Director's Choice is any indication, Berry is ready for the challenge. And she has a definite aesthetic voice that is dedicated to showing the strength and versatility of the DBDT dancers.
This was best showcased by "Absolute Rule," a duet from New York-based choreographer Elisa Monte, and the world premiere of "Memoirs," from former Dallas Black Dance Theatre dancer and current Point Park University faculty member Garfield Lemonius.
Monte's intimate and aggressive movement language pushed the dancers to a new state of performance in "Absolute Rule." Under her tutelage, Monte managed to strip the dancers of their facades rendering them into real people going through a real situation, albeit, on stage. It was simple, it was rough, and it was a struggle for power that anyone in any sort of relationship can relate to. "Memoirs" capitalized on the strong technique, musicality, and physical strength of the company. Full of complex partnering and movement phrases that required extreme focus, power, and precision, Lemonius masterfully crafted a work that was inherently human. It read like a piece that has the ability to transcend time, which is just what Williams had set out to do in her original mission for DBDT. This piece can bridge cultures as it is simple in its narrative--memories, relationships, the fleeting passage of time, these are all concepts that we know, that we live in and with, and are constantly trying to figure out a way to confront. We move in circles, in and out of each other, and steadfastly hold on to anything we can. In "Memoirs," we see those personal feelings personified.
In the beautifully designed Wyly Theatre, these dances popped. Putting aside the training of these dancers and the history of DBDT, the location does play into how we judge what we are watching. Space is important, and DBDT knows that. They smartly plan a season long series at the Wyly Theatre and use the technical aspects of the space to the fullest. With good lighting, comfortable seats, and the pristine setting of the theater, we feel as if we will see a good show. But what happens when you move dance into an alternative space?
Some people would say, you're not getting your money's worth. But let's rethink this generalized, under-researched statement. Space is difficult to find, and difficult to afford. So what do smaller companies do? They find a space that works for them, and they make their work bloom inside of it. That's exactly what happened with Muscle Memory Dance Theatre's season opening performance, Wrapped and Uncovered: An Evening of Dance Unraveling and Unveiling.
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M2DT is celebrating a decade of creating modern dance in Dallas, and with this new era comes a certain amount of growing pains. After 10 years, where will they go next? Only director Lesley Snelson knows that answer--or is at least asking herself that question--but the steps they took this past weekend shows that they are open to exploring new avenues of performance and dance. Snelson turned the reins over to two artists unknown to the Dallas dance scene and let them run wild with her company. Wrapped and Uncovered, welcomed choreographers Megan Odom, from the University of Colorado Boulder, and Randee Paufve, from Oakland, California. Odom's work employed bubble wrap to examine how we isolate and insulate ourselves. Paufve's explored the paradoxical nature of love and desire. Each piece was a narrative story that was based on the either the choreographer or dancers' personal lives. While we got lost in Odom's story--it wasn't always clear if we were supposed to be tracking her own story or if we were just watching an exploration of what it is like to be a woman growing up--Paufve's more developed work brought us back to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and displayed the many facets of love.
What each performance displayed is the desire of dance directors in Dallas to experiment. Even though both DBDT and M2DT are working within traditional modern and contemporary dance structures, they are willing to see what lies on the fringe. What is beyond classic lines and easily understood narratives? It quite possibly could be their future. DBDT will always be known for performing classical formal works, like the restaging of Etudes and Elegy by choreographer, Gene Hill Sagan, and the full-length ballet Escapades by Alvin Ailey--in fact, other than the Ailey Company, DBDT is the only professional company with the rights to perform this ballet--and they do an exemplary job. DBBT's repertory benefits from the inclusion of these works, among others, as it illustrates the impressive training of their dancers. But what was demonstrated with "Memoirs" and "Absolute Rule" (even though this piece was from 1992) is that DBDT wants to have a voice that speaks to the human condition.
M2DT's mission is to support the work of North Texas dance artists who develop the human experience by connecting everyday experiences to perspectives that ask audiences to question their values, morality, or perceptions. M2DT seeks to provide local performances and choreographic opportunities for dance artists in their evocative use of dance as an organic art form. I would say that they are doing that, at least in respect to providing a space for young, local dancers to come and receive professional training and the chance to perform in a professional setting, but with this show, they are expanding their publicized mission to support the work of emerging artists (and where they are located doesn't actually matter). Maybe they will continue to invite artists from outside of Texas to collaborate with the company, and maybe they will even develop a program that taps into the creative spirit in their hometown and connects them with these national artists.
Whatever the future holds, this past weekend of performance shows that Dallas is ready to grow. Right now, we could use that breath of fresh air.