Promising Spring for Dance

Spring this year feels like spring nearly 30 years ago when a handful of active companies made Princeton’s modern dance scene fascinating to watch. Now here comes a series of concerts that promise relief from a two-decade drought. I just saw “Rider Dances” at the Yvonne Theater (Sunday, March 7) and the Princeton YWCA’s “I’ll Have What She’s Having” is scheduled for the same venue on March 19 at 8 p.m. and March 20 at 2 p.m. Then there’s the Outlet Dance Project on April 10 and 11, the Mercer Dance Ensemble on May 22 and 23, and the student programs at Princeton University, the April 3 Ze’eva Cohen tribute at the university, and Rutgers’ Mason Gross — suddenly it seems like there’s lots to see.

Kim Chandler Vaccaro, director of the Rider University/Princeton Ballet School dance program, cajoled choreographers and fashioned production elements to come up with a praiseworthy concert that went from one inventive surprise to another. For instance, a wonderfully outrageous dance, evocative of Pilobolus, is Christine Colosimo’s “What Happens Next.” It opens with an upside-down dancer, her head and shoulders covered by a stage-wide cloth, her bright red boots kicking to the music of Bubba Sparxx “Miss New Booty.” Trust me, it works.

Then human moles burrow under the huge white cloth and soon four more pairs of red boots on upside-down people are dancing. They exit, the cloth billows with air, and from the center emerges a dancer who, rooted under the cloth, does an adagio for the back and arms (shown in photo). As she begins to move around the stage, the giant cloth takes on its own personality. The dance ends with four pairs of red boots lying empty on the stage.

Another very successful prop-feature dance was Laney Engelhard’s “Recurring,” which opens with dancers lying down, blanketed with 30 pounds of white feathers. If you think “Nutcracker” snow, think again, because the white stuff didn’t stay on the floor. Seven sleek dancers, costumed with white on their backs and white with black spots on their fronts, deftly wade through it, scoop it up, and toss it to flutter down again. At the startling, sudden end, the dancers bend forward, arms outstretched like bird’s wings.

In “Potent Remedy,” Jennifer Gladney, with help from Danielle Nolen, fashioned her own mythological world, starting with Niko Paleologus’s projected video of a boy and girl (Princeton Ballet School students Emilia and Jayden Kraft) who walk in the woods and encounter fantastical creatures, all dressed in bright colors except for one in black. All those characters plus 10 more then appear on stage, dancing to “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” by Zigman and Desplat. Most of the time the children sit on the side and watch but occasionally they join in. One of the two lead dancers, the one dressed colorfully, circles in a spotlight of glitter.

I can’t discern the plot or meaning on first viewing, but at the very end – when the children have reappeared in a video as young adults – the black creature seems to be morphing into full color, as she circles in the glitter spotlight. J.R.R. Tolkien eat your heart out.

College dance concerts are rightfully about the students, and these students have the good fortune of being able to train at Princeton Ballet School as well as take academic work at Rider. It’s the job of the director to put every student onstage and make them look good, and Vaccaro deftly did that, in the opener “Web? Where Exactly?” To a “layered” guitar score by student composer Michael Dylan Ferrara, cleverly using economical movement material, sixteen students strut jauntily, on stage and in the aisles, having the time of their lives.

Also here, the dance equivalent of the torch song (by student Elizabeth Zelesny), the requisite hip hop number (a fun piece by Shakia Johnson), and Cherilyn Barbone’s “Internal Static,” a well-performed tap dance with a seemingly endless variety of call-and-response percussion rhythms.

All but one of the choreographers was a professional, and the dancers were mostly students and alumni. What set this concert apart is the student’s opportunity to share the stage with, and learn from, seasoned pros who have had distinguished careers. Cheryl Whitney Marcuad’s Sarabande, a modern work choreographed to Bach by Mary Barton, gave new meaning to the words “elegant” and “fluid.” And Diane Kuhl’s sparkly solo (also by Barton) is a better-than-textbook example of “epaulement,” the well-trained ballet dancer’s carriage.

When Marcuad and Kuhl joined Janell Byrne for a trio by Byrne, it seemed I was back in the 1980s when Byrne was dancing in three companies – Teamwork Dance and Geulah Abraham’s Danceworks, and the Mercer Dance Ensemble. Ah those were the days. Over the past decade I have seen Byrne dance only through her choreography as director for the Mercer Dance Ensemble, three or four new pieces every year. (Her 30th anniversary concert for MDE is May 22 and 23 at the Kelsey Theatre.) Now here was the real her, understated, fluid, joyous. Revealing that you don’t have to have eccentric movement, histrionics, or props to make an effective dance moment, the three veterans showed the kids how it’s done.

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