On Stage: At the Rock

November 3, 2009

It’s always a treat to make the trip up to Slippery Rock University to see a performance, if only to luxuriate in the turn-out, usually averaging around 700, that the dance department gets from the Rock’s student population. Sometimes you think you’re at a pageant, with various students cheering for their friends or favorite teachers.

But give the staff credit — this is never simply accessible dance, the kind that seeks out a razzamatazz response. It’s most often serious, thought-provoking and sometimes puzzling. But it is making these students into savvy dance audience members. And if they move to Pittsburgh following graduation, the dance scene there will only benefit.

This year the dance department added a little outreach to mix by engaging a couple of performers from the music department. Shimmering soprano, Colleen Gray, and her wonderful acompanist, Nanette Kaplan Solomon added a beautiful landscape in Doug Varone’s “Tomorrow.” Staged by New Castle’s Natalie Desch, the piece reminded us that Varone’s work is generally intended for the mature dancer. These young performers diligently followed Desch’s suggestions, articulating the phrasing with considerable aplomb. But at this point, they were following directions and unable to draw upon a life perspective born only of years of experience. So the gentle arm movements and breathing patterns were all there, but not yet infused with the rich layers that make Varone’s style seem so effortless.

The students seemed more at home in Melissa Teodoro’s “La Candela Viva,” a colorful Latino number (and audience favorite) ¬†filled with engaging rhythms and swooping patterns, and Nola Nolen Holland’s “Under the Glass Ceiling: Parts II and III,” a patchwork quilt of movement about women, with a score by dance department musician Andrew Hasenpflug.

The rest of the program was devoted to assorted solos and duets by the faculty, except for a competition Bharata Natyam solo, staged by Java Mani for Ramita Ravi, a 9th grade student at Ellis School.Associate professor Thom Cobb and wife Christine took on Billy Siegenfeld’s “Poppy and Lou,” a character study about the relationship of an aging couple, where she leaves him behind — and not for the easiest of reasons. The pair took on the quirky details of this duo about Alzheimer’s and touched a lot of sentimental chords along the way.

Assistant professor Jennifer Keller added a pair of solos, one by associate professor Ursula Payne, “In Defense of” and nicely drawing on one aspect of Keller’s varied background, this one with an emphasis on martial arts. Keller was always wary, the embodiment of the levels found in Homeland Security’s levels of alert and performed, as always, with the intelligence and commitment that she exudes.

Keller drew on her dry wit with Andre Koslowski in “Duck and Cover,” inspired by an actual ’50’s announcement referring to procedural details (“duck and cover”) in case of a bomb attack — a perfect blend of innocence and black humor.

Guest artists and instructors Lindsay Pierce and Gwen Hunter Ritchie added a pair of contrasting solos to complete the program. Pierce toyed with spotlights in “low,” literally moving in and out of the shadows. She used the spots as a reference to negative space, keeping it, well, decidedly low-key. Hunter Ritchie, on the other hand, made a full-blown dramatic statement in “La Femme en Flammes,” showing an ability to hold the stage with her back to the audience, no easy feat, and giving full amplitude to the movement.