Form on Film: A New Mode for New Dance Partners 2020

Two dancers making grotesque expressions.

Caroline Dahm (left) and Shacura Wade perform in Micaela Taylor’s “bts” with Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company for New Dance Partners 2020.

Up close and personal is not something that’s happening within most arts these days. But the collaborative artists who reimagined this season’s New Dance Partners displayed elaborate, expressive internal worlds, bringing the audience as near to dance as we are going to get in the now times.

Dance on film is a different beast than dance on stage. This seventh NDP was a different beast altogether. Presented by the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College, New Dance Partners is billed as “The Ultimate Collaboration.” This year that took on extra meaning, with dancers and choreographers working in Kansas City and in different parts of the country, on stage and in homes and outside around the city, working together with technicians transforming their movement through videography, lighting, and audio.

Though the event is usually held in September, one of the season’s kick off events, this year the Carlsen Center hosted a virtual series retrospective in September, waiting to premiere the new commissioned works in December, streaming the virtual event from the Carlsen Center webpage for free during the weekend.

Emily Behrmann, general manager of Carlsen Center, opened the presentation with remarks filmed in the empty Yardley Hall. Before each dance piece, artistic advisor Michael Uthoff conducted an interview with the choreographer. These individual interviews went on too long, and were largely repetitive, focusing more on the challenges of creating through virtual channels instead of in person (challenges nearly every performer is dealing with across genres), rather than the creative process and thought behind each unique presentation.

This was a mixed presentation, with many fascinating moments and some weak ones. While there was no overarching theme, the struggle for connection and latent anxiety filtered through the presentation.

Choreographer Caili Quan created “Keeping Time” on Owen/Cox Dance Group. She had perhaps the biggest challenge, conceiving a cohesive work with dancers in different parts of the country, and they created an exquisite film that firmly connected the choreography, video editing and music (composed by Stacy Busch). The piece was laced with disquiet, though the work had a sort of loose, swaying rhythm, lots of movement in the hips, arms flung wide, and a slouchy pop beat, Busch’s layered vocals modulated with a gravelly tone.

Quan worked with six dancers, as soloists or paired. The look arced from grayscale to color and back, dancers costumed in luscious hues of late summer. Details of gesture could have been even more exploited, with snippets of fingers dancing or touch. These are the moments at most benefit of film, often lost at the barrier of proscenium, like a close up on Christopher Page-Sanders, alone in his kitchen, his expression of longing heartbreaking when he laid his hand against his cheek.

The piece was built on three pairs of exquisite dancers, closing the distance scene to scene: Page-Sanders and Demetrius McClendon mirrored movement in split scene from their locations in Colorado and Minneapolis; Laura Jones Wallner and Emily Mushinski danced in unison, distanced; Winston Dynamite Brown and Latra Wilson, who are married, at first in solos, then together in duet.

With Störling Dance Theatre, choreographer Rosie Herrera created “Maria,” exploring the iconography of the Virgin Mary, performed on stage at Yardley Hall. Semi-narrative, the dancers displayed struggle, tension, with tortured movement. Too often the moments resolved in silent, faraway expressions, the impact weakened with frequency. This caused the piece, which was twice as long as the others and had the largest cast, too, to feel indulgent and, sometimes, as though they were just filling time. I enjoyed the central moment of the work, a slow approach on a central figure (staring so firmly in the close up we could see her irises), with a dramatic reveal, as well as the final moment of resolute motherhood in solitude.

Changing directions entirely was Julia Hinojosa’s “Tal como eres (just as you are),” a flamenco dance solo performed by bailaora Melinda Hedgecorth, who has studied and performed extensively in Sevilla (though she now resides in Kansas City). Hedgecorth danced to “Atoche” by guitarist Beau Bledsoe, performed by Ensemble Ibérica. Since this was the only piece to feature in-person musicians, it was a shame they were only on screen during the second part of the performance, since the group sounded excellent, playing difficult music.

This work was filmed around town, picturesque locations with the sunlight shifting scene to scene, the frequently shifting camera angles allowing us to see the dance from every direction. Moments filmed under a bridge had a European flare, though other locales were unmistakably particular to Kansas City. I would have loved more from the setting at the Town of Kansas bridge, at sunset, looking across the Missouri River.

This was an overall lovely section, though in the audio editing we lost the ferocious stomped rhythms that make flamenco so visceral. Dancing with shawl and long ruffled train, Hedgecorth gave a dramatic, passionate performance, maintaining momentum that flowed expressively and didn’t bog down, quite the feat in a 12-minute solo.

Micaela Taylor gave us the biggest surprise, though, choreographing for Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company. The anxiety of this past year has caused our societal mask to slip, and Taylor leaned into that with “bts,” the quartet of dancers in Joker-esque makeup, their movements disjointed, backs hunched, expressions in rictus.

What was comic-grotesque and off-putting in character was most fascinating in movement. Much of it was in unison but slotted together in different formations that the unison never became static, performed excellently by Caroline Dahm, Jeremy Hanson, Tristian Griffin, and Shacura Wade.

Though filmed on the stage of Yardley Hall, the muted, filtered lighting design by Eric Morrow gave the work a dingy things-hidden-in-the-cellar-for-good-reason sort of feel. Often, the focus was deliberately off center, causing the audience to feel tilted, off balance. Close-up to the performers’ gnarled expressions added to this well-honed tension.

After the mature sound palette of the first portion, featuring sound effects by Taylor, music from Pan Sonic, or cavernous silence, the second half’s music was mildly disappointing, with the on-the-nose Sad Clown selections of Julius Fucik’s “Entry of the Gladiators” and Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, under spoken word. Subtler selections, with exactly the same movement, would have elevated this piece. Taylor’s provocative choreography, nevertheless, seemed endless, inventive, and enthralling.

This show’s success was largely due to the technical team of Sean Bergman, Alec Nicholas and crew, helping bring the choreographers’ visions to the screen.

New Dance Partners might never have occasion to present dance on film again, once live performance is safe again, but after this initial presentation, they certainly make a case for continuing to celebrate and promote new dance, on stage and on film.

Reviewed December 4, 2020. New Dance Partners 2020 is available until Sunday, December 6 until midnight. Free.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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