At the Moore, a wonderfully democratic annual showcase of young dancers

Nathan Ayon and Kelsey Taylor, in "West Side Story" Credit: Arnie Sadiro

A tornado of teen and early twenties terpsichorean talent touched down on the stage of the Moore Theatre last weekend (July 8-9). It was the annual production of DANCE This, produced by Seattle Theatre Group, operator and programmer of the Moore, Paramount, and now the Neptune Theatres.

DANCE This is a big party, a celebration of youthful exuberance by local performers filtered through the art of movement from many cultural permutations. Held each July, the concert is usually presented at the Paramount, but according to its producers was moved to the venerable Moore Theater so as to accommodate more performances, including two evenings for general audiences and two matinees for younger ones.

This year’s festivities had some new wrinkles beyond the use of the Moore. This time around there were “product tie-ins.” The two big productions on this concert were also promotions for the appearances of the Mark Morris Dance Company and the touring production of the recent Broadway revival of West Side Story, both upcoming in the 2011-12 Paramount season.

One can be legitimately wary of such connections for a show like DANCE This. In the past it has been a wonderfully democratic showcase almost exclusively for local choreographers, young dancers, and dance companies. However, in this case it was all to the better.

Jerome Robbins’ dances for West Side Story are universally acknowledged as a high point in American musical theater. The Romeo and Juliet inspired story of warring gangs on the streets of Manhattan has entered our national consciousness.  The young Seattle dancers who performed a suite of three dances from the show were taught them by Joey McKneely, who is credited as “reproducing” Robbins’ choreography for the recent Broadway revival.

As in the original Shakespeare story, the West Side gang-bangers were meant to be teen-agers, and it was lovely to actually see young people playing these roles.  The suite comprised the longest dance sequence I’ve yet seen on a DANCE This bill, known for the brevity of individual pieces. My wife refers to them as “dance tweets.” The three parts are the Prologue, made famous in the dazzling opening sequence of the film version; the Dance at the Gym; and the Rumble with its climactic knife fight and tragic deaths.

Robbins merged ballet, jazz, Latin, and urban vernacular movements for West Side and it is very difficult to dance them right, with their suspended movement, quick darts and bursts — demanding the dancers to often stay low to the ground in an almost cat-like crouch. It’s a “cool” theater dance vocabulary from the ’50s, from another time and place. It also requires the dancers to be actors displaying in movement intention and facial expression emotions such as anger, love, fear, and hate, and to even speak brief lines. That’s a big order even for the best professionals.

The performers were game but understandably many of the subtleties, most especially the acting, eluded them. They came alive in the dueling duet sequence in the Dance at the Gym, and The Rumble had an element of impulsive reality. Standouts were strong and clear Jillian Lambrecht as Anybodys, and the resolute Kellen Lewis whose upright posture and taut arms caught some of the pent-up anger and pride of Bernardo.

With a cast of 32, these three dances would have been better seen on the larger stage at the Paramount. The ensemble pieces, particularly the Dance at the Gym, were not served well by the smaller confines of the Moore. Leonard Bernstein’s score was performed live by young musicians from the Synergia Northwest Orchestra.

Mark Morris’ Polka from 1992 was alluringly danced by a cast of 13 women all costumed in short dresses with their hair let down. It’s a short work, and seems even more so given that the dancers never stop, with the architecture of the dance moving them in circles and curvo-linear patterns that often overlap in clever and intriguing ways. The lively music by Lou Harrison was performed excellently by violinist Mitchell Drury and pianist Adrienne Varner. Recently retired Morris company dancer Joe Bowie, a member of the original cast, set the work.

Meant, as I understand, to reference Eastern European folk dance in which Morris has an informed background, Polka does much more than that. With all women and costumed in mini-dresses that give a hint of tunic, this might be a village green, or a forest glade, and these dancers the young acolytes of some god or goddess to whom they are energetically paying homage. It is a small mystery why they do what they do, but there is certainly something compelling in their Dionysian extravagance.

Morris is also a witty choreographer, and though I may be reading into the movement, there seemed references to the macho dances of Ted Shawn, or the early women moderns, when the Polka performers raise one arm high with clenched fist, the other replicating the position but placed down on their thigh. As for ballet, when women wear their hair down in the famed Romantic and Classical dances it references powerful emotions and turmoil rather than contained beauty — the “anti-bunhead” look.

There were six other short dances on the program including an opening Afro-Brazilian work, Negrume da Noite, Reluziu o Dia (Dark of the Night, Dawn of the Day) choreographed by Dora Oliveira that combined traditional African-influenced Brazilian dances with more contemporary “urban” movements of today. The local Tahitian group, Te Fare O Tamatoa, led by Nanave Radford and Teina Radford, gave a festive Maeva mai I Tahiti (Welcome to Tahiti).

Daniel Cruz, a long-time DANCE This teacher and choreographer, presented Ground Zero with his group Cruz Control. It was described as a work that “takes a trip through the seasons and eras in New York.” The most distinctive section was the first, interestingly the “cool” style of dance that we later see in the opening of the West Side Story suite, for which Cruz was the rehearsal director. The invaluable Daniel also each year stages the grand finale of the show that brings all the show’s performers on to the stage for one final energized dance rock out.

It was good to see the length of the West Side Story suite, as it gave the performers some time to really work at its sophisticated material. Two short videos introduced the Morris and Robbins works, but neither gave much-needed context for the dances to an audience that had many younger viewers. Finally, there were clever transitions between each of the first six short pieces on the program that helped keep things moving along. However, these same transitions might be interpreted by audience members as a statement giving equivalence to all the dances, rather than respecting the culturally different territory from which each originated.

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