New Dance Partners Delivers, Back On Stage

Ballet dancers with a red background.

For New Dance Partners, the Kansas City Ballet performs Irene Rodriguez’ “Amor Brujo,” featuring Amaya Rodriguez (kneeling, center) as Candela and Liang Fu (center) as El Destino. (Credit: Michael Strong.)

Not without adjustments, we’re transitioning from the screen back to the stage, where live art thrives. 

New Dance Partners, now in its eighth year, was filmed last year, a highly successful experiment for the choreographers, companies, and the newly dubbed Midwest Trust Center at Johnson County Community College. 

This year, they were back in-person, on stage. The pandemic has wrought changes big and small, including programs accessed via QR code and mask requirements. To allow for social distancing, the presenters added a third show this year, a Saturday matinee, with generous allotments of empty seats between patrons spaced out throughout Yardley Hall. 

But the art–and the appreciation for it–remains. 

The presentation annually showcases work reaching diverse realms of choreographic style–to date, New Dance Partners has commissioned 29 works–and this year was no different. 

Other similarities: artistic advisor Michael Utoff helped match choreographer to company and lighting designer Burke Brown was once again called on to create an array of moods and effects for this eclectic program. 

Störling Dance Theater opened the show with “Womb Wit and Wisdom,” an expression of women’s thoughts and struggles, something this all-female group often emphasizes for this program. This internal exploration was emphasized with dusky, pink-tinged background deepening to greyish hue as the work progressed. Choreographer Carolyn Dorfman used the words of the dancers, recorded by them and set over music selections, bringing personalization to the work. Each matched her personal story–or philosophy, memory, affirmation–with a solo, echoed by the ensemble. Matching the words “believing takes practice” with a headstand was a bold and well executed choice. 

However, a note to future choreographers: if I never see the dancers of Störling writhe on the floor again, I would be too glad. The group has some fine performers, but for some reason this seems to be choreographers’ go to move for the troupe, transmitting womanhood as sorrow, tension and pain. These dancers are extremely earnest, they seem unafraid to take risks, yet time and again we see extended sections of amorphous floorbound movement. While I don’t see this as the fault necessarily of Dorfman or Störling, perhaps next year we can acknowledge the jubilance and joy in sisterhood? 

Ronen Koresh’s solemn, wary piece, called “Breath,” both captivated and confused, set on Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company. It was an arresting and sombre work, with cohesive movement, though even with sections titled, “Moonlight,” “Crash,” “Hold On,” a snippet of explanation would have been appreciated. 

At first, Koresh used almost cliched musical selections, with the movement expertly woven iteratively around the circle of six dancers to the familiar melody and strict phrases of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Moonlight” piano sonata no. 14. (Later musical selections were less obvious, but alas, not specified.) Balletic movement was given a harsh edge, almost combative. At times, the dancers stumbled (purposefully), as though helpless, puppeted.

In stark contrast was a soloist, dancing in a sort of alone-in-your-room fashion, to the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” until interrupted with a red flash and the sound of breaking glass, invariably the crash. A hint of discord threaded through the remainder of the work, the dancers following each other watchfully. As one moved, the others followed. 

Wylliams/Henry often gathers some amazing dancers in Kansas City, and this performance was no exception. Muscular and graceful, they conveyed an attitude that was deliciously unsettling, with commanding physical expression.

Choreographer Sidra Bell worked with Owen/Cox Dance Group, presenting a most abstract and haunting work in “our yoke.” Excellent performances from the company, each dancer magisterial.

This work seemed at its essence steeped in ritual, the dancers fulfilling necessary but incoherent impulses. At one point, a dancer seemed as though she was acknowledging each point of the compass; at another, a dancer performed a sort of jive sequence, unable to halt. 

The choreographer upended some tropes, moments with the women lifting the men on their backs, or men partnered, the lifted moving his feet as though traveling carefully among clouds. A particular foggy lightning design helped with that vision. 

Bell’s concept extended beyond the bounds of the traditional stage, playing with the curtains, riggings, and backstage area. In one section, multiple angled lighting gave the dancers shadows of tenuous, macabre effect, as the shadow closest to each didn’t move in quite the same time, with quite the same gestures. Shadows, too, obscured the dancers’ expressions at times. 

The sound design for the work, pulled from a variety of sources, was primarily aggressive with raw and rasping string tones, a nearly painful, piercing drone, and electric oscillating waves. 

For this year (and for possibly the first time in New Dance Partners history?), the Kansas City Ballet brought out a good old fashioned story ballet, based on the 1915 ballet by Manual de Falla, with book (according to the program notes) by María de la O Lejárraga: “El amor brujo” (“Bewitched Love”). 

Irene Rodriguez, choreographer, is also a flamenco dancer, and this piece relished that Romani character. Rodriguez balletized traditional flamenco movements, demonstrated especially well in Humberto Rivera Blanco’s solo, along with flamenco elements of palmas, fan, shawl, and stick. 

Amaya Rodriguez played the thwarted Candela, Kevin Wilson as her cheating husband Jose, Rivera Blanco as her true and loyal love, and Liang Fu as the conniving El Destino, weaving the fate of souls as he spins an elaborate and dramatic cape-like skirt. Rodriguez covered a range of emotions, gave an impressive mad scene, and performed with exceptional grace. Cameron Thomas, as the jealous husband, fueled that vengeful rage into some impressively skybound twisting leaps. 

Adding to the storybook quality was the opening tableaux, silhouettes as though from a cut paper illustration. Later, the hellscape scene had an effectively garish, jarring quality offset by the grace of the women of the ensemble as ruby-tinted wilis. The women, alas, weren’t given as much show-off freedom as the men in the earlier dance fight scene, which included impressive physical feats.

All in all, this return to the stage presentation gave the audience what they had come to see: something new, challenging, excellent. 

Reviewed Saturday September 18, 2pm.

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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