Dance Faculty Concert at Smith Theatre by Luella Christopher

Smith Theatre
Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland
September 23-24, 2016
By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.

Contempomodern gems captivated balletomanes and friends descending on the wooded Columbia campus of Howard Community College (HCC) on the first fall weekend of the academic year. The program on both nights was divided between works of several members of the dance faculty and Christopher K. Morgan & Artists.

All the HCC faculty works opted for a narrative superimposed on choreography. Late in the evening, the crowd favorite erupts: “I Do” – a world premiere by choreographer and performer Joan Nicholas-Walker (MFA, The Ohio State University; BFA, George Mason University). In this playful satire, the artistic director of the HCC program indulges in wishful thinking about love and marriage, but also suffers its vexing opposite of conflict and disappointment. No male character presents himself onstage to interfere with her reverie and consternation.
Nicholas-Walker morphs unmistakably from bride-to-be to beleaguered partner and back again to a place where her belief in the presumed union is affirmed. She repeatedly irons a shirt between snappy vignettes that she dons as a veil, then scorches and rolls angrily into a ball. Hops, renversés, body wraps and curls all distinguish her naive-turned-feisty persona. Torch songs by Etta James with Harvey Fuqua, Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin keep the wind at her sails.
A second world premiere, “Home Is Where . . .?” presents choreography by faculty member Elizabeth Higgins (MFA, Florida State University; BFA, Rutgers University). It’s a familiar prompt to fill in the blank: “. . . The Heart Is, Family Is, Things Are in Order”. Music: original composition, “Three Women” by Walt Matthews.
This piece depends heavily on interaction with props: Alex Krebs with a door and chair, Ciarra Philip with flannel tees and Joan Nicholas-Walker with glass beads. Krebs sits with her back to the audience for an eon while the other two dancers fidget and fume. Philip disrupts Nicholas-Walker’s orderly rows of beads, then grabs a pillow with which she plays restlessly but abandons for the chair when she cannot get comfortable. Krebs takes Philip’s place and wraps the fabric around her arms. The original meditative moments that separated the women in their own spheres of light at the beginning foster the eventual formation of a dramatic if tenuous bond between them.

The final HCC faculty work, “Simmer”, is offered by Sylvana Christopher (BFA, The Ohio State University; Graduate, The Washington School of Ballet). Again, narrative is key, though the duet for a male dancer (Taariq Muhammad) and female counterpart (Maggie Lockhart) is predominantly balletic and beautifully “abstract” due to the absence of props. Muhammad as the young man may well be a reconstructed rogue – a prince foraying outside the perimeter of his engagement to another (think Albrecht in “Giselle”).

In searching through the forest and meeting this woman, the man initially ponders and curls his outstretched long fingers. He then reaches the platonic level of her soulmate. Energetic jetés and cabrioles, sublime lifts and swirls and, finally, interlocking limbs and hands produce a crescendo of experiences and memories for the pair to savor.
Christopher’s ballet is set to “Winter Song”, an original composition by guitarist John Lee with string components by Karen McCoy and Jeff Franca. “Simmer” is part of a larger work, “The John Lee Ballet” that received its world premiere in Voices from the Glade, an evening of works by Glade Dance Collective presented at Dance Place in May of 2016.
A third world premiere, “Into the Out” is presented by Nicole Y. McClam (MFA, University of Maryland; BA in chemistry, East Carolina University). Unfortunately, the intended narrative is less comprehensible than the three current HCC faculty works. The piece begins with falling snow – in which three of the four performers are dancing – while the fourth remains an outsider (a configuration that is reversed at the end). Krebs and Philip are joined by Stacey Claytor and Bree Hardy in backward somersaults, rolls and clawing on the floor, thus latching onto more athletic styles of dancing. Music: “Orbit and Grounded” by Daniel Bernard Romain.
One interpretation of McClam’s work offered in the talk-back on opening night (reported to this writer, who only attended the second night) allowed for the “bun-head” (Hardy) to declare her loyalty to classical ballet during the snowfall. She briefly relinquishes it in favor of the robust styles exhibited by the other three dancers, but returns to ballet in the end.
Although many decades of ballet and modern training have fostered my personal preference for abstract movement – along with a studied impatience for prescribed narratives – I would welcome a program note in this instance that clarifies the choreographer’s intention. McClam’s exploration of the divergence and tension (rather than fusion) between classical ballet and its contempomodern heirs strikes me as a difficult choice for a theme when mounting choreography. The HCC dance faculty would do well to track her progress (McClam recently commenced a visiting assistant professorship at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas).

Contributing to the finesse and professionalism of the HCC concert was guest artist Christopher K. Morgan, who seems to be just about everywhere between D.C. and Hawaii this year. All three of Morgan’s works are compelling and breathtakingly fresh when measured next to efforts by other choreographers to reformulate the basic vocabulary of ballet.
In his world premiere of the duet “Eye”, Morgan’s lifts are expansive and provocative – often the legs of his partner, assistant company director Tiffanie Carson, are ramrod straight but widely splayed in mid-air. She appears to float literally above him. In one lift, her head is even hanging down below her neck while elevated. Once again, at the end, Carson is hooked over Morgan, legs splayed, in an in-place spiral. This creates a dramatic shape that virtually replicates an abstract statue. Music for the duet is “Hiszékeny” by Ventian Snares and “Gwely Mernans” by Aphex Twin. It delivers a constantly throbbing beat with an overlay of high-pitched instrument.
A dramatic visual art installation by Morgan, fabricated by Dylan Soares-Kern, would steal the show if not for his exquisite and skillful partnering of Carson. The two dancers are perfectly matched in terms of technique and their understanding of movement. Carson has grafted Morgan’s redefined ballet vocabulary onto her own limbs. The visual art encompasses two transparent vertical tubes filled with objects like feathers moving up and down in trapped air. Placed at opposite ends of the stage, they are a wonder to behold. Near the end, feathers are jettisoned from the tops of the tubes. Despite these theatrical touches, Morgan’s “prop management” never detracts from the choreography.
Might be my imagination, but toward the end the circle of light projected on the floor between the two tubes seemed to take the shape of a cat’s eye or even an outsize human eye. The piece concludes with Carson in a lift by Morgan that turns in place while she is positioned parallel to the ground. Exquisite.
Working backward in his repertoire, Morgan debuts “Teetering” (2014), commissioned by a community college on the opposite coast (Lane of Eugene, Oregon). Staged subsequently at the University of Maryland, Morgan describes it as an abstract dance that explores the personal act of confronting and embracing fear. The highly refined ensemble of seven dancers (Carson, Chelsea Brown, Abby Farina, Deontay Gray, Emily Heller, Thomas L. Moore Jr. and Rachel Shaver) depicts multiple facets of the same person. Music: “II, First Breath, Draw Breath” by Ezio Basso, played by Bosso & The London Cellos Ensemble and “Eleven Guitars” by Scott Horcroft.

Costumière Kelsey Hunt delineates the attire of each dancer from all the others, a device that reinforces the notion of multiple facets. Two women are paired early in the piece; the two men are even paired at one point. Once again, Morgan employs upside-down lifts and sweeping grand battements en tournant (turning forward propulsions of one leg) to give an expansive look to the basic ballet step. The dancers even tilt and throw their heads back, adding a dynamic and point of interest to bodies that are already moving assertively on a slant.
Suddenly, Carson is surrounded by the others at center downstage. She executes a quicksilver cameo of soutenu (sharp pencil turn) and piqué/passé combination, all with her back to the audience. Toward the finale, the dancers hold their ankles in static poses, leaving us with a memorable tableau. Or, are they just doing yoga?
In “Halcyon” (2013), emanating from his residency at the CityDance Center of Strathmore, Morgan startles with tall moving statues made of clear packing tape that have been molded limb by limb by sculptor Bryan Sullivan. He both choreographs and performs along with Carson, Farina, Moore and Lauren Christie in the evening’s actual opening presentation. Once again, Morgan displays the signature partnered lifts – splayed legs of the female portion of the duo thrust still further into right angles. Turning attitudes en dedans (angled poses turning inside toward the standing leg) do replicate yoga poses. Runs in a circle devolve into a lone dancer circling the stage. Like much of Morgan’s choreography, “Halcyon” represents a highly cerebral work of visual art with movable parts.

Copyright © 2016 by Luella Christopher