March 10, 2010

Festival dancers' interplay evokes our emotional lives


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The Bates Dance Festival's summer performance series opened Saturday with Kate Weare Company, a quartet of powerful and intelligent dancers including director and choreo-grapher Kate Weare.

The troupe presented two pieces: ''Lean-to,'' which premiered just last month in New York City, and ''Bridge of Sighs.''

In a question-and-answer session after the performance, Weare noted that her choreography tends to start with movement rather than story. This was evident in both pieces, which ranged from abstract to deeply evocative but left precise interpretation up to individual perspective.

Intense partnership among the dancers was evident from the beginning of ''Lean-to,'' an exploration of collaboration and communication.

In ever-changing duets and trios, Leslie Kraus, Douglas Gillespie and Adrian Clark blurred the boundaries between their bodies. In lunges and extensions, arms and legs were almost geometrically in line. When Gillespie wrapped his arms around Kraus, it was hard to tell whose hands were whose.

Beneath a swooping set piece by Kurt Perschke that resembled a giant sail or crescent moon, the dancers leaned into and away from each other in board-like postures as well as more sinuous sequences.

The choreography gave a sense that the dancers were supporting one another physically and emotionally while being buffeted by outside forces -- and sometimes by each other.

In their pairings, they evoked intimacy and lovemaking in unexpected ways. Here, and again in ''Bridge of Sighs,'' it was as if in a parallel universe, people might make love by supporting each other's heads in sensuous rolls, or finding perfect synchrony in the sweep of their arms.

Weare is interested in the stillness between movements, like the white space on a page, and these dancers can be still like no others. Kraus, in particular, emanated energy in her pauses, which were absolute but somehow kinetic.

''Bridge of Sighs'' opened with Kraus and Gillespie audibly slapping one another in front of a backdrop that resembled the wall of an ancient fortress. Although there was humor, the shredded design of the back of Kraus' shirt and moments of vulnerability in both partners suggested a darker underlying message.

Weare and Clark turned the duet into another series of varied couplings that were alternately sensual, rhythmic and violent. Supportive lifts and entwined steps suggested codependency rather than sympathy, except when the two women were paired. Then, more tenderness emerged.

The original score, by Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp of One Ring Zero, ranged from harshly discordant to festive, but always with an underlying irony and ambiguity to match the choreography.

The costumes by Astrud Angarita amplified this effect. Ruffles and slits that might have been appealing seemed instead more aligned with Kraus' shredding.

The overall emotional impact was that, as in life, pain cuts deeply and fear is real, but human strength will endure.

Weare brought elegance to emotions that, in lesser choreographic hands, might have been disturbing, raw or even vulgar. Here, the audience was allowed to explore and question in a milieu that only walked the line between entertainment and discomfort, never crossing it.

Similarly, the choreography was inventive without seeming forced or unnatural. A combination of familiar and strikingly new shapes kept the dancing at the border between known and unknown, a place where ideas can be challenged. As sheer movement, every moment was spectacular.

The Kate Weare Company is emblematic of the quality of the Bates Dance Festival's offerings. This is a truly world-class educational and performance venue, featuring many of the same artists as Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Mass., the grandfather of all dance festivals (founded by modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn in 1930).

Like the Pillow, Bates nurtures aspiring dancers with superb training, while offering performances that might otherwise not be seen outside a major metropolitan area. It is remarkable to have a festival of this caliber so close to Portland.

Performances continue this week with Battleworks, another New York-based company, on Thursday and Saturday. (A free lecture-demonstration featuring the company is scheduled for today.) Battleworks will present the world premiere of a work created in collaboration with composer-percussionist Damien Bassman, with live music.

Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer, teacher, musician and former principal dancer who lives in Saco.

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