For a choreographer, it’s all very well to work with good amateur dancers, but it’s really special to make work for an artist, who can take your movement and make it better than you’d thought it could be.
Janell Byrne, in her 30th anniversary concert for the Mercer Dance Ensemble (Kelsey Theatre, May 29), did that for Jennifer Gladney (shown right, photo by Pete Borg). A superb dancer, Gladney sometimes seemed more “Janell” than Janell. It’s been a gradual process, exciting to watch.
In Byrne’s “Confluence,” Gladney joined Andrea Leondi, Brianne Scott, and Kaitlyn Seitz – four sun goddesses in flowing gowns, with warm sidelighting (lights were by Sean Varga).
“Jig and Reel Stew” was Gladney’s home hoe-down turf. She and the above dancers, plus guest artist Karen Leslie Mascato, wore red and black in a lively evocation of different folk traditions, like syncopated slapping on the stage floor to reference the German Landler dances, where boys slap their thighs and feet. Then Gladney surprises with an off balance slow extension into a rond de jambe, a lyrical contrast to the down-home fun, and she makes the most of it.
Byrne challenged Gladney to go Spanish-sultry in “Tangos,” (her star turn was to music by Anja Lechner, but there was an Astor Piazzolla section as well). Gladney uses her shawl as weapon, as a semaphore, as a bullfighter’s cape. She was Byrne’s altar ego. She took the stage.
Byrne has a mystical streak, and her “Sacred Space,” to music by Morton Feldman had seven dancers (Danielle Atchison, Ian Conley, Charlene Jamison, Alexandra Pollard, Michael Quesada, Brianne Scott, and Scott Walters) treading with caution into devout, pilgrims, treading one organism. Evoking a mystical mood, it was my favorite piece on the program.
Gladney and Han Koon Ooi each contributed two works. Though they were good, I think it’s fair to say that they showed the contrast between a young choreographer and a mature one. Byrne simply knows how to do the most with less material and how to move dancers around the stage in out of the ordinary ways that are true to the dance’s message. That’s what the 30 years were about.