Washington University’s 'Dance Close Up' Program Showcases Gifted Performing Arts Faculty
There’s not a lot to the Annelise Mertz Dance Studio at Washington University: It’s almost a black-box theater, with a bare background and risers with chairs and a bare floor fringed by three rows at curtains. But the beauty of a canvas comes from the artist who works with it, and at last night’s premiere of the dance faculty’s “Dance Close Up” performance (running tonight and tomorrow at 8pm), each instructor made the canvas their own.
As the performance’s artistic director, David Marchant (who would later perform his piece, “December”), pointed out, part of the beauty of the performance came from the faculty itself. “The evening is a beautiful spectrum of styles and approaches by a group of veteran artist performers who have been working in the field for 20 and more years,” he said, speaking to the rarity of performing dancers more than 40 years old. “Almost all of these performers are over 40, so that’s a lot of experience and wisdom dancing on stage, a lot more personhood.”
Some honesty from this author: I arrived at the performance without contacts. At first I worried that I was going to miss the beauty of the form of the dancers, but I soon realized that my vision, or lack thereof, highlighted Marchant’s point: Without contacts, fine lines on the dancers’ faces smoothed, thinning hair was thickened, and gray stubble—was that stubble?—disappeared into smooth skin. All I could see was movement and composure, more indistinguishable than not from their students: Strength, agility, grace—decades on, it remains.
The performances encompass a wide variety of styles. The opener is a cheeky ballet choreographed and danced by award-winning ballerina Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal. There’s a lyrically modern piece from professor Cecil Slaughter, peaceful choreography from Mary Ann Reis, and a modern duet from the coordinator of the dance program (and formerly, of this event), Mary-Jean Cowell, and adjunct instructor Cynthia Kahn. And then there’s improvised tap by Wash U instructor Wendy Ballard and a poignant call-to-action for homeless children interpreted by Ashley Tate.
Asha Prem, the Artistic Director of Dances of India and Wash U adjunct faculty member, dances a beautiful interpretation of Shiva’s creation of the universe in homage to and in celebration of the Hindu deity’s role as the embodiment of music and rhythms. A major highlight was “Short Fables by Franz Kafka,” a reading of four of Kafka’s short (very short), humorous stories accompanied by cello and sound-effect percussion, by cellist Tracy Andreotti and her husband, Henry Claude, who is the music director of the Dance Division at Washington University.
“For the showcase, it’s an excellent opportunity for us to show the students who study with us what our actual artistic craft and practice is like,” Marchant says. “It makes it more tangible for them, that they can witness their own instructors putting their philosophy to practice.”
Adjunct faculty member and modern dance company founder Dawn Karlovsky also took to the stage to perform work-in-progress “Au Lavoir,” a poignant modern dance set to a guitar arrangement of Yann Tiersen’s “Comptine d’Un Autre Été.” The song, appropriate not only in title but in style, evoked the original setting of Karlovsky’s latest collaboration, which took place at a village wash house in Nerac, France. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the structure was a place for the women of the village to gather and escape, to be “truly free to talk,” according to program notes. Karlovsky’s dance, beginning prostrate with the sound of running water, moved into one of celebration as the water was overcome with Tiersen’s uplifting guitar and accompanying choreography that seemed to bask in the freedom of renewal.
But one of the true standouts was Marchant’s “December,” a piece, that at least to this reviewer, read as cyclical – indicative not only of the seasons, but of one’s life. Beginning at front left stage, Marchant worked his way around to wind up under snowfall, first fearful, then embracing it, before returning to front left to seemingly open a door to the unknown.
The key to his evocative performance, however, was the audience participation; the soundtrack played inhales and exhales, code for opening and shutting one’s eyes, respectively. And there was an added effect: As the visceral breathing increased and decreased in tempo, the emotional associated with those kicked in—fear, calm, peace, frustration. As the audience looked on when cued, the performance became a series of moving photographs, glimpses from a life—and only those which Marchant chose to share with them.
“Audiences get nervous with modern dances because they can be ambiguous,” Marchant said. “I want to dance a piece of artwork that the audience can look at and come to from their own points of view and their own experiences. I leave cues for them to build their own interpretation from, images people will be able to grab on to with some sort of solid connection.”