Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company Celebrates 30 Years of Modern Dance in Kansas City

Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company member John Swapshire performs Leni Wylliams’ “Sweet in the Morning” during the 30th anniversary performance. Credit: Ryan Andrew Bruce.

With a bold, exciting program, Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company celebrated its 30th anniversary, presenting some of the very best of their repertory from the last three decades and, for the audience, an expertly-guided journey in American choreography. 

Since 1991, the company has welcomed 163 dancers and 64 choreographers. In thanking all the people who have supported and contributed to the success of the company, co-founder and co-artistic director Mary Pat Henry became teary-eyed.  A large crowd of well wishers were in the audience for Saturday evening’s performance in White Hall at the UMKC Conservatory, full of members of the dance community and even a few people new to dance, who got quite the introduction to the company and modern style with this performance. 

The program, “Let Your Body Sing,” presented six favorite pieces: astounding, well-crafted works of physical prowess and emotional strength. The 10 person company displayed impressive command and versatility. Contemporary, abstract, and impeccably performed, there was no weak spot in this presentation, the ensemble showing strength upon strength. 

“Moore in Time,” from 2010, was Henry’s contribution, inspired by the abstract sculptures by British artist Henry Moore (many such works are found in the Donald J. Hall Sculpture Park and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art). Backed by projected images of Moore’s work, the dancers themselves became sculptural, with taut, controlled motion and startling poses. The dancers twist and leap, stretching, wrapping around each other as one entity, with impressive lifts and holds, and some incredibly trusting catches. 

The performance also remembered Leni Wylliams, co-founder with Henry, a dancer, choreographer and teacher who was tragically murdered in 1996. Wylliams/Henry presented one of his solo works, “Sweet in the Morning” (1992), performed by the long-limbed and impeccably-controlled John Swapshire. The piece is instantly arresting, set to music by Bobby McFerrin, with a large stained glass rose window projected behind and the performer balancing on a bench with deliberate, flowing motions. 

An airborne Jeremy Hanson in Ronen Koresh’ “Breath.”
Credit: Ryan Andrew Bruce.

Ending the first half was the company’s newest piece, Ronen Koresh’s “Breath,” which just premiered last month as a commission for the Midwest Trust Center’s “New Dance Partners” program at Johnson County Community College. [Reviewed here.]  The work is fascinating, relentless: long, iterative phrases, stomping, stuttered movement, compulsive gestures, and strong strides, Koresh emphasizing his dancers’ strengths in the sharp, individualized moments, featuring David Calhoun, Carolin Dahm, Jeremy Hanson, Katie Johnson, Swapshire, Hannah Wagner, and Ashlan Zay. 

Shapiro and Smith’s “To Have and To Hold” (2005) was playful and perpetual, a sort of living Rube Goldberg machine of three sturdy wooden benches as frame, the six dancers in white as the gears, moving over, under and around in seamless motion. Calhoun, Dahm, and Johnson were joined by company members Christina Mowrey, Sammee Schirmer, and Michael Tomlinson. 

There’s no immediate plot, just a general exuberance of motion; nevertheless, it captures a wealth of moments: love, affection, grief, heartbreak, respite, joy. Intricate sequences brought the dancers in contact with the benches and each other in a seemingly endless array of movements, set to the original score by Scott Killian. Tender touch, the hint of a smile, graceful flow warmed the first portion, while a more sombre, but no less tender, attitude sustained the second half. 

“Ensuing” is a relatively recent work (2016) by co-artistic director DeeAnna Hiett, featuring Ashlan Zay, Jeremy Hanson and John Sawpshire in a dramatic, poignant trio. Also tender, this piece was more balletic than the rest of the program, again showing these dancers’ range in a captivating show of strength and elegance, with a touch of pathos. 

Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company performs Kevin Iega Jeff’s “Church of Nations.” Credit: Ryan Andrew Bruce.

The Wylliams/Henry repertoire includes works that comment on social issues, and they closed the show with the powerful “Church of Nations” (1999), choreographed by Kevin Iega Jeff. This piece explores the relationship of the clergy in condoning war in the name of God. It required nearly the full company, as well as UMKC students Ivyana Robinson and Jayla Johnson. The piece hits powerfully, no matter how many times you may see it, with the dancers’ contorted, spasmodic, movements, a large cross emblazoned on the wall behind. Most of the work was in unison, the artists seated, standing, or cowering in folding chairs, locked in a struggle against powerful internal forces, with horrified expressions, reaching–straining–for release. 

For those who have followed the growth of Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company over the years, or those new to modern dance, this was an excellent representation of the field and an inspiring evening of dance. 

Reviewed Saturday, October 2, 2021. Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company continues its 30th anniversary celebration in the spring. Learn more at wylliams-henry.org.

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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