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RDT's 'Voyage' Travels Through Creative Dance

by Karen Webb 
Repertory Dance Theatre closes out its season at the Jeanne Wagner Theatre with the endlessly inventive program "Voyage."

Two of the works on the bill harked back to Jane Comfort’s “Underground River,” in which most of the action takes place within the mind of someone, or several someones. Both came about as the result of the company’s search for choreographers to create commissioned works for the grand finale of its Sense of Place series.

One, Stephen Koester’s “Fever Sleep,” is a new work based on an examination of the inner workings of a mind on the verge of dementia. Anyone who has ever flirted with insanity—be that insanity falling in love, pulling an all-nighter to cram for a test, living with stress or truly standing in need of pharmaceutical support—will find something familiar in this montage of images.

The piece is replete with hazardous-duty choreographic maneuver, but also with the introduction of random elements: a small rubber utility ball makes repeated appearances, as does a shoe, an announcement from the management, and a brief turn by dancer Thayer Jonutz as a kind of living, walk-on prop.

The minimalist score by David Lang would keep a narcoleptic awake, but again it feeds into the sense of the mental space Koester is trying to create. If I had to pin a feeling on what the four main dancers were portraying, it would be panic (Lynne Listing), mania (Josh Larson), world-weariness (Chien-Ying Wang), and terminal confusion (Nicholas Cendese), but the entire piece had far more scope than this reductionist view suggests.

I don’t know what it is about Koester’s work, but it creates a sense of connection even when it's not clear why. The performance was unique, energetic, fresh, and entirely true to its own vision.

Lighter but still in the “we’re inside someone’s head” mode was Scott Rink’s “Here We Are,” based on a short story by Dorothy Parker that consists entirely of a conversation between two very-newlyweds just taking off on their honeymoon. Rink applied for the competition with this piece as an example of his work; Artistic Director Linda C. Smith just decided to invite him to stage it.

What conveys the “mental space” image is the use of two couples, one sitting facing upstage and watching a video of telephone poles passing by (as from a train compartment), one facing the audience and performing almost all the movement. The sedentary couple, Listing and Larson, perform the spoken word text. Who knew these fine dancers could also act?

Taking visual centerstage are Wang and Jonutz. They are charming, yet they manage to convey the sense of distance that can separate two people sitting inches apart, who have just vowed to spend their lives together. Their choreography follows the dialogue yet is not enslaved by it. It’s a little like the rules for ice dancing: the partners are in nearly constant contact, and Rink’s partnering maneuvers are beautifully original.

Sexual tension is a constant undercurrent, but it erupts in ways that direct the flow of conversation around the inevitable: the bride complains that the groom hates her expensive hat, her taste in clothing, and her sister, and that he finds her best friend too attractive. In a final maneuver, Wang falls from Jonutz’ shoulders back into Larson’s waiting arms, and it’s unclear if she’s had a fit of the vapors or has just decided to take the plunge from petty bickering into trust. Both would really be consonant with the story.

The other new work, Molissa Fenley’s “Desert Sea,” is based on designs one finds in weaving and other handicrafts of the Native Americans of the Colorado Plateau. She has some lovely movement phrases, and that sense of weaving angularity comes across. The piece would have worked a little better for me if she could have worked with different levels, or perhaps isolated members of the company so the entire ensemble was not onstage and in motion for the whole piece: certainly both the concept and the music would have supported such tweaking.

The program also included the reprise of Zvi Gotheiner’s “Duets to Brazilian-Indian Music,” a sextet of duets that weave a tapestry very different from Fenley’s. There was an earthy appeal in Wang’s duet with Jonutz (the music is reminiscent of the old folk tune “Cripple Creek,” which almost could have replaced it) as well as a women’s duet featuring Listing with Angela Banchero-Kelleher.

The true “aaaaah” moments, though, came in the duets featuring Banchero-Keller and Larson (and a wall) and Larson with Alissa Schirtzinger. I’ve heard dancers comment that Gotheiner’s choreography is luscious, or that they feel most like dancers when they are dancing his steps, and that comes across very clearly in these two pieces. The dancers spiral and reverse, suspend and release, and—yes—climb the walls, imparting a sense of fluid motion even when they are completely still.

"Voyage" ended Saturday, April 16 at the Jeanne Wagner Theatre in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

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