There’s special delight in a mixed bill dance program, especially when the ballets are created by different choreographers. Depending on how many works are on the program and how proficient the choreographers are, the average viewer can usually find at least one piece to his or her liking.
So it is with Spectrum Dance Theatre’s current Studio Series at the company’s home on Lake Washington. Two of the three ballets are premieres, Olivier Wevers’ “Back, Sack and Crack” and Donald Byrd’s “A Meeting Place.” The third, by Crispin Spaeth, dates from 2010; all are set on Spectrum’s talented dancers. Although there is one similarity among the three pieces — ever-changing duets and trios of male-female, male-male and female-female groupings — the ballets couldn’t be more different in some key respects.
Wevers’ work, financed by an award from the prestigious Princess Grace Foundation-USA, is the most successful, showcasing many of his trademark characteristics. As a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet, Wevers was not only an accomplished technician but also a dramatic powerhouse. His innate acting ability added a theatrical quality to every role he danced, except in the most abstract works where he was required to be an emotional blank slate. Even then, he usually telegraphed some human feeling, a talent that he has taken into all his choreographic creations, including those for his own company Whim W’Him.
In “Back, Sack and Crack,” Wevers’ dramatic flair is obvious from the very first sequence. As the piece opens, sidelights illuminate the bare lower legs of eight dancers, who stand before us in a range of black high-heeled shoes (the men as well as the women). It’s a stirring image and immediately forces us to sit up and take notice. As the lighting changes to reveal the dancers’ full bodies, clad in black shorts and see-through cream tank tops, they begin to move in a series of inventive contortions. The compelling score alternates between elegant Chopin and dissonant Michael Gordon, whose electronic music is a jarring but effective counterpoint to the melodic Chopin and serves as the foundation for a series of stirring solos, duets, trios and ensemble sections.
It soon becomes clear that one of the male dancers is drawn to a pair of black heels, highlighted on the floor in a glaring spotlight. For the remainder of the work he and the others move through a series of twisting, sliding actions — now made possible by black socks they put on. But what is most striking and most memorable about “Back, Sack and Crack” isn’t so much Wevers’ individual steps but rather the dark, ominous mood he creates and his skill in developing a coherent structure with a distinct beginning, middle and end.
Vincent Michael Lopez is compelling as the androgynous figure focused on the black shoes and his ease with Wevers’ angular style is borne of his frequent appearances with Whim W’Him. Here, Wevers takes full advantage both of Lopez’ capacity for emotional intensity and his extraordinary muscle control. Lopez’ pointed feet become an exclamation point at the end of even the smallest movement and his laser-like stare into the distance seems like it might bore holes into anything he glances at. The seven other Spectrum dancers Wevers uses here — Jade Solomon Curtis, Derek Crescenti, Shadou Mintrone, Donald Jones Jr., Kate Monthy, Alex Crozier-Jackson and Stacie L. Williams — are accustomed to Donald Byrd’s no-holds-barred, athletic style and take readily to Wevers’ extreme physical demands.
The gorgeous, amazingly flexible Cara-May Marcus and Becky Mikos flesh out the company in Byrd’s whirlwind “A Meeting Place.” Byrd uses live music whenever he can and in this case he has hired ud player Münir Beken and lutenist August Denhard, who play a selection of music from a range of historical periods. The ud and lute are related — one is of Turkish origin, the other its European counterpart — and together, Beken and Denhard create a haunting and stirring music bed for Byrd’s frenetic choreography. Dressed in combat fatigues, the dancers fly through a series of Byrd’s signature moves — over-pitched leg extensions, rapid-fire jumps and turns, hyperextended torsos.
The program notes, and the costumes, are meant to suggest some kind of war negotiations but that loose narrative was lost on me. After Byrd’s PAMU Project, in which he explored political themes more explicitly though not any more successfully, “A Meeting Place” feels like old artistic territory. Having said that, the Spectrum dancers, the strongest lot that Byrd has assembled since taking the reins of the company 10 years ago, bring their characteristic fearlessness to every step.
In this and all the ballets on the program, Curtis radiates a regal presence that dazzles even when she’s standing still, and her extensions are extraordinary. Jones’ testosterone-fueled turns and lifts make it impossible to take your eyes off him and Mintrone is buoyant in even the most into-the-ground movements.
Rounding out the program is Crispin Spaeth’s “Only You.” It’s the most lyrical work of the three and has some lovely moments, especially when one dancer swirls another around in a move reminiscent of ice dancing. Even so, this quiet, gentle ballet can't stand up to the drama of “Back, Sack and a Crack,” or the energy of “A Meeting Place” and, as a result, gets lost on this evening-length program.
If you go: Wevers/Spaeth/Byrd, Spectrum Dance Theater, 800 Lake Washington Blvd., through December 9. Tickets: $25 general, $20 students, $5 Teen Tix (door only) at the box office, by phone, 206.325.4161 or online at www.spectrumdance.org.