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Dance Reviews: Unassuming Opulence

0424_dance_newchamberballet Great riches can be found in small, modestly wrapped packages tucked away in the unexplored nooks and crannies of the dance world. It was a sturdy little dance troupe from the American heartland -- the 50-year-old Kansas City Ballet -- that offered the most choreographically adventurous and aesthetically diverse evening at the ballet in New York this season. In a plain studio setting, with no theatrical lighting and the audience seated on metal folding chairs, Miro Magloire presented a remarkably sophisticated program of serious choreography set to challenging experimental music. And Lydia Johnson Dance, a wee company based in South Orange, N.J., performed a show of Johnson's works that demonstrated perhaps the most organic choreographic fusion of ballet and modern-dance techniques ever invented.

Kansas City Ballet
The chance to see brilliantly rendered excerpts from a rarely performed Twyla Tharp piece; a fresh, neo-romantic ballet by the company's artistic director, William Whitener; and a nifty new work paying homage to the golden age of Kansas City jazz (the 1920s and 1930s) choreographed by Donald McKayle, probably the most important African-American male choreographer of all time next to Alvin Ailey: What more could one ask for? We must thank the Kansas City Ballet for presenting such an artistically rich and eclectic program in its debut season at the Joyce Theater (March 11-16).

Whitener's slyly autobiographical "First Position (A Reminiscence)" is a beautifully crafted work featuring a transfixed young male through whose eyes we admire the fluttery movements, delicate grace, and artistic posturing of a corps of female ballerinas and their male partners. With just the slightest whiff of humor, Whitener serves up an affectionate tribute to balletic romanticism that steers clear of parody yet acknowledges the potential for absurdity in the pursuit of ballet's beauty. A master of spatial composition and ensemble patterning, Whitener animates the stage with continuously shifting configurations that form and dissipate with exquisite flow and in smart sync with the phrasings and emotionality of the ballet's luscious Alexander Glazounov score.

Dancing with absorbing authority, Logan Pachciarz offered a winning performance of the opening solo from Tharp's "Brahms Paganini," staged by Whitener. A leading dancer with the Twyla Tharp Dance Company when the work premiered in 1980, Whitener was one of the original interpreters of the role -- an extremely challenging, overextended solo for a male dancer that may account for why the ballet is one of Tharp's least-performed works. An endurance test that pits the loosey-goosey casualness of Tharp's movement style against the exhaustive busyness of the Brahms music, the solo comprises long, breathy phrases interrupted by percussive statements that burst out into unpredictable shapes and pathways. Pachciarz's understated approach evokes a coolness that helps settle the piece's inherent aesthetic conflicts. But his sporadic, forcefully accented, head-on connections with the choreography's tricky quirks are what really evoke that signature Tharpian edginess.

The spunky quintet who performed the ballet's second section of athletic lifts and tosses (staged by Shelley Freydont) brought a more involved, human quality to their dancing. Though a postmodern sense of detachment might have been more appropriate to the work's pure-movement aesthetic, this warmer interpretation proved valid and downright enjoyable.

And speaking of enjoyable, McKayle's "Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City" put a smile on everyone's face, on stage and off. Spankingly outfitted in 1930s costumes (designed by Melanie Watnick), the dancers take on the style and characters of the times in a lively suite of dance vignettes. Couples cut the rug at a swing dance hall, men go wild to the latest jazz sounds, bums warm themselves around ash-can fires, and drunks cavort down the sidewalk. Because McKayle stays true to the vernacular dances of the era, there's a gratifying unity to the choreography and the focus remains on the concerns of the characters. It's a Broadway style of choreography from back when musical theatre dancing was used to convey character and drama. Kudos to Christopher Barksdale and Chelsea Wilcox for standout performances as actor-dancers.

Miro Magloire's New Chamber Ballet
In the intimate, unadorned setting of City Center Studio 4 (March 28 and 29), with a line of masking tape demarcating the stage area, a small group of serious dance lovers were treated to a program of Miro Magloire's choreography. A conservatory-trained classical-music composer, Magloire lets his advanced musical knowledge drive his choreographic explorations. Seemingly unconcerned with concocting fully produced theatrical presentations of his choreographies, Magloire is most interested in the intricacies of the marriage between live music and dancing. His bare-bones presentations permit us to examine that relationship up close and without illusion.

The most successful of the program's four pieces was "Reflections II," a pointe solo haughtily danced by Christin Hanna for which Magloire also composed the solo violin score. In the face of the achingly emotional music -- the violin seems to cry out in pain -- the dancer remains high up on her toes, taking stately walking steps or spinning with confident poise, as if determined not to be disturbed by the feelings of the music. It was the age-old battle of head versus heart.

In the plotless trio "Aeolia," to three of Telemann's fantasies for solo violin, Magloire carefully matches the changing moods of the music with gently engrossing, softly classical vocabulary. For "Klavierstück," a duet to a startling, hard-on-the-ears piano piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Magloire situates the grand piano center stage. Powerfully played by Melody Fader, the domineering music controls the dancers as they shape their bodies closely around the piano. Insistent chords force them to stop and listen; passages of silence command them to freeze. Oddly, the choreography grows less interesting when the dancers break free of the piano and are allowed to move independently throughout the space.

While one respects the challenges Magloire sets himself in choreographing to such difficult musical choices, in "Silent Shadows," his attempt to make a dance to Giacinto Scelsi's monochromatic "Xynobis" proved beyond his capabilities. For some reason, the flat music -- long held tones on a single pitch -- elicited curvy, wavy-lined dancing and lots of finger pointing that made no sense whatsoever.

Lydia Johnson Dance
Mixing the weighty floor work and freewheeling torso actions of modern dance with the angular leg positions and ornamental port de bras of ballet, Lydia Johnson has created a tasty cocktail of dance vocabulary that looks markedly original and feels very naturally blended. Her nine-year-old chamber company, Lydia Johnson Dance, presented a scrumptious evening of Johnson's work at the Ailey Citigroup Theatre (April 4-6), dancing to a delightfully eclectic mixture of well-chosen music, including scores by Philip Glass and Henryk Gorecki, country blues tunes, and jazzy Dean Martin recordings.

A quartet of women in partnership with four folding chairs created ravishing tableaux of crystalline linearity in "Falling Out," forming a striking, static frame for the actions of an anguished soloist and an agitated couple. In "Collecting Rain," Johnson added a heavier-than-usual dose of expressiveness to her visually stunning choreographic language. Four couples do lots of heartfelt rolling on the floor, with the women in sexy negligees and the men in casual street clothes -- that costuming cliché that has come to represent a hot romantic relationship. The choreography, however, rises far above the hackneyed as it captures the spirit of the "crying in your beer" country-flavored musical accompaniment.

While Johnson cunningly conveys the tensions and toys with the complex rhythmic statements contained in its Gorecki score, "Lament," a studied ensemble work, fails to elicit any lasting memories. Its fluid images pass pleasingly by the eye, yet by the end of the piece one remembers little of what one has seen. But "Dream Sequence" offers a lasting payoff, as Johnson makes the bold decision to match her heady concert-dance movement style to the song stylings of Dean Martin. A collection of entertaining duets -- particularly those performed by Kerry Shea and Tucker Ty Davis -- and stylish group dances, the work sparkles with a postmodern playfulness. After a technically dazzling solo by R. Colby Damon, Johnson thumbs her nose at notions of aesthetic cohesion by sending a line of dancers snaking across the stage in Ziegfeld Follies fashion while flapping their arms in a manner that could just as easily have come from the second act of Swan Lake.

-- Lisa Jo Sagolla

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