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CityDance Ensemble

'Latitude,' a mixed repertoire program:
'Scorched,' 'Pathways,' 'Alma,' 'Mattress Suite' and 'Thirst'

by Carmel Morgan

October 22, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Terrace Theater, Washington, DC

I first saw CityDance Ensemble, a DC area modern dance company, when I moved to the nation’s capital two years ago.  Its dancers have been consistently good, but in the past the choreographic choices and artistic direction failed to sufficiently emphasize the gifts of this talented troupe.  Recently, however, CityDance Ensemble has caught fire.  They are now performing works that suit their specific strengths.  Moreover, they are performing them at an entirely new and inspirational level.  CityDance Ensemble has finally achieved that rare type of synergy in which the diverse dancers – short, tall, sassy, serene, seasoned, and just starting out – relate to one another in a remarkably cohesive manner.  Although Delphina Parenti and Jason Garcia Ignacio still pack a powerful star punch, the company’s performers currently make up a true ensemble, in which every dancer contributes to the group’s success. 

“Latitude,” the company’s season opening performance, provided plenty of reasons for DC’s contemporary dance fans to celebrate.  “Scorched,” by Kate Weare, which premiered last year, keeps looking better and better.  Costume designer Kristina Lucka put the women in Tabasco colored slinky short dresses that are draped in the front and are bare backed, paired with smoke colored short shorts.  The men wore long dark pants.  “Scorched” has three distinct sections: “Small Song,” “See Line Woman,” and “Tango Satanique.”  All of the parts emitted incredible heat.  Dancers whipped their heads around and kicked about showing off their long legs.  There were Latin rhythms, bluesy moves, plus of course, some sexy Tangos.  Men danced with women, but there were smoldering same sex duets as well.  In sum, “Scorched” was positively hot.    

CityDance Ensemble selected Alex Neoral, director and choreographer of Focus Cia De Dança, a Brazilian dance company, as one of its 2009 Next Choreographer Commissions for emerging choreographers.  “Pathways,” a 2007 work choreographed by Neoral, involved highly complex arm and hand movements that resembled exaggerated sewing or carpal tunnel injury-inducing factory work.  Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood” added a water droplet-like percussion to the mix.  In moments of silence, one could hear the five dancers breathing and the squeak of their feet against the floor.  They stared ahead determinedly.  Everything was done with exquisite precision and timing, especially some dazzling running jumps and catches.  One couple joined arms and engaged in a kind of tug-of-war.  Other pairs investigated different partnering possibilities.  They experimented with moving while bound together – a ride while sitting on someone’s back or shoulder, a few steps with one dancer’s hands on another’s feet, or a lean at an absurdly steep angle.  Toward the end of the work, the dancers gathered together.  They scooted on their knees and changed directions, counting “1,2,3,4” and chanting undecipherable phrases while repeating an intricate canon of hand gestures. 

CityDance Ensemble also awarded a choreography commission to Rachel Erdos, an English-born choreographer living and working in Tel Aviv.  Erdos’s clever duet, “Alma,” won first prize in Denmark’s Aarhus International Choreography Competition.  In “Alma,” Giselle Alvarez and Ignacio played not only Adam and Eve, but also Prince Charming and Snow White and William Tell.  The stage was strewn with dozens of green apples that dotted the entire surface creating a stunning visual texture.  Alvarez began by standing perfectly still on one side of the stage with an armful of apples.  She cradled them like a baby.  Ignacio crawled toward her with one piece of fruit gripped between his teeth.  He weaved like a snake between the apples.  Once he reached Alvarez, Ignacio shoved an apple in her mouth, causing her to lose her armload with a noisy, rolling thump.  Throughout the work, the two dancers manipulated the apples in a huge variety of ways, for example tucking them tightly in the space under one’s chin or between the knees, juggling them, and walking atop them.  However, the pair also manipulated each other, and this provided the most delicious games of all.  The piece could have been silly in another choreographer’s hands, but Erdos found real beauty in the movement while simultaneously preserving the fun of it.  “Alma” built in seductive intensity.  When Ignacio finally bit into one of the apples with a crazed crunch, touching off a biting contest with Alvarez, one had to appreciate the humor and as well as the steaminess.      

Larry Keigwin’s “Mattress Suite” simply delighted the audience.  In contrast to the light “Elements,” which Keigwin’s company performed at the Kennedy Center the previous week, “Mattress Suite” combined humor with deeply felt emotions.  While “Elements” was a carbonated soda, sweet and airy, “Mattress Suite” was more like a fine wine – a little fruity, but with genuine depth.  Not surprisingly, “Mattress Suite” featured a mattress and dancers clad in white undergarments.  In the first section, titled “Straight Duet,” Kathryn Pilkington and Maleek Mahkail Washington elegantly tumbled across the mattress, alternately embracing and flinging each other.  Although they both gained some bounce from the pillow-top mattress, their pushing into and off of it required significant strength, highlighting their athletic prowess.  “In “Sunshine,” Washington, having been left alone, leapt and flew, taking hearts with him.  “Three Ways,” gave the work its greatest humor.  Washington, Ignacio, and William Smith rose and fell onto the mattress.  They jumped on the bed like children on a sugar high, but their many tumblings and jealous couplings also revealed serious adult themes.  In the final section, aptly called “At Last,” with music by Etta James (“At Last”), Pilkington appeared by herself, propped against a mattress wall.  She pushed against it, and squatted beside it, eventually showing a wide smile.  In the end, the three men carried her off on the mattress like a triumphant princess. 

The ambitious “Thirst,” by choreographer-in-residence Christopher K. Morgan, closed the program.  Morgan quite clearly had a message to deliver.  A press release by CityDance Ensemble announced that “Thirst” is “centered on themes of greed and overconsumption.”  CityDance has performed a number of works that are focused on environmental issues like global warming, and “Thirst” is yet another piece to add to the company’s growing green repertoire. Unfortunately, however, the message of “Thirst” got lost in translation.  The work was overly long and muddled.  It is no easy task to meld film and text into a harmonious choreographic endeavor, and while I admired the effort, “Thirst,” with its abstract screen images and voices that were sometimes in foreign languages, came across as more puzzling than enlightening.  There were abundant motifs that were too literal – dancers crawling in the desert with their tongues protruding, a circle of water glasses, and long sticks that served as thermometers.  One voice cried that it thirsted for “clarity of mind.”  I thirsted for clarity of dancing.

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