On Stage: Point Park Plunges into Two Contemporary Dance Classics

Photos: Drew Yenchak

The Conservatory Dance Company at the Byham Theater is always the highlight of the Point Park University dance year, for it’s a time that the students can measure themselves against the international standards of dance.

This season’s program presented audiences with some new options. All used larger group ensembles to demonstrate that Point Park had more sustained depth of talent and the student casts, with anywhere from 12 to 18 dancers in each of the four pieces, could fill the choreographic bill.

That being said, technical facility was not all that obvious — no classical fouettes here. This program was all about shaping the movements within the choreography. And the dancers most often equally shared that choreographic burden.

That mean that most of them were only a face in a wonderfully moving crowd. But the two most renowned choreographers on the program rendered not only the most visual impact, but also had room for some impressive solo work.

It might have been surprising to some that the oldest piece on the program, Martha Graham’s 1929 Heretic, was not only historic, but still uncommonly relevant amid the other more contemporary choreographies.

With Mikelle Rindflish leading a group of 11 women in the original Graham role (so fresh to Alexandra Ball’s live piano accompaniment), the cast urgently conveyed the clean architectural feel of the dance.

Staged by former Graham company member Diane Gray with the aid of rehearsal director and Point Park staff member Judith Leifer, the work had already been performed at the Joyce Theater in New York as part of a Martha Graham company’s Inner Landscape event with university dancers last March. So there was a sense of comfort in reliving a time when modern dance was just beginning to create inroads into the performing arts.

Mesmerizing to watch, this piece, so beautifully and lovingly performed, showed that great art can be timeless.

The Graham connection continued with the performance of Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16.  Although the Israeli choreographer has since moved onto his own movement language called Gaga, he has long acknowledged his debt to the modern dance icon both as a company member and as an artist.

It was good to see his work again. Mr. Naharin has performed here (Pittsburgh Dance Council) and was commissioned by Patricia Wilde and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, which resulted in the highly successful Tabula Rasa, a piece that has since been performed all over the world.

Actually, though, Minus 16 is a composite of segments from Mr. Naharin’s various dances, so you might call it formulaic. We saw a one-hour version, Deca Dance, by Les Grand Ballets Canadiens at Pittsburgh Dance Council and subsequently I saw his own company, Batsheva, performed the work at Kennedy Center with a whole new sense of gritty reality. Minus 2- 7-1

There are other Naharin blends, including Minus 7, Minus 2 and Minus 1. Minus 16 was created, however, for Nederlans Dans Theater 2. While they all vary somewhat in dance material and length, there are certain elements that appear more frequently.

One is the “intermission dance,” here performed by Taylor Knight. A loosey-goosey, seemingly improvisatory solo actually performed during intermission, it gave Mr. Knight the opportunity to show his clever understanding of the movement.

No one else had that same ease of weight, that same organic fluidity, a style that Mr. Naharin has labeled Gaga. So the cast was zealous in the semi-circle of chairs, where each appears to get “shot” in a series of  waves. But it didn’t have the explosive impact of the other versions.

The audience participation section worked well, though it never has failed to connect when the performers bring audience members up on the stage and try different moves with them. Chosen properly, the effect is hilarious. Then they all leave, except for one, in this case, a stage-aware older woman, to vociferous applause.

Those two works, however, overshadowed the other pieces on the program. They were both skillfully constructed, but didn’t have the same depth.

Val Caniparoli’s Bow Out generated a mild interest when the women escalated en pointe in black suits. It seemed to be a battle of the sexes, although it wasn’t clear, aside from the exchange of various articles of clothing. Full of energy, it just didn’t live up to its percolating jazz potential.

Likewise with Kevin Iega Jeff’s Sky, an expansive work (Montana?) that matched Sigur Ros’ relentless score, an offshoot of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. He kept things moving in dense patterns that matched the students’ artistic temperament. And there was a silky, almost spiritual overlay that added to the overall effect.

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