March 10, 2010

High-energy Battleworks mesmerizes at Bates


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At the end of an hour and a half watching Battleworks Dance Company, the audience emerges invigorated, and also somewhat dazed, by the energy of the dancers and choreography.

The nine dancers of this New York-based troupe, under artistic director and choreographer Robert Battle, display utter commitment to choreography requiring a stylistic and athletic range from contemplative to mechanistic to frenetic, with occasional dramatic falls to the floor.

Thursday's program at Bates College's intimate Schaeffer Theatre in Lewiston included a world premiere: ''Sidewalk,'' performed by five female dancers to music by Carl Landa, a resident artist at Bates Dance Festival this summer.

Deeply urban in tone, the piece began and ended in a straight line of dancers, with jutting movements suggesting parts of a machine. In between, it portrayed the chaos of a crowded city street with fast group sequences punctuated by moments of individuality, including slow position changes and leg extensions.

Costumes by dancer Tyler Gilstrap were black with irregular white patches, which Burke Wilmore's lighting changed from gold to blazing red as the piece progressed.

The evening opened with the neoclassical ''Overture,'' to music by J.S. Bach. Performed by the ensemble with solos by Erika Pujic, Marlena Wolfe and Kanji Segawa, the piece had a lush visual quality and satisfying musicality. Exquisite lighting brought striking clarity to shadows playing on the velvet-clad dancers.

Battle's choreography actively interacts with the music, not simply following its superficial rhythms. For example, he juxtaposes movement sustained enough to qualify as slow motion with fast violin sequences. Rather than work against the music, this contrast augments its resonance and shades of meaning.

Thematically, ''Overture'' was ambiguous, with gestures of searching and loss, jubilant leaps and despairing falls. Solos, partnerings and groupings were alternately elegant and turbulent. At times, each dancer had different choreography, creating an over-saturated, mesmerizing effect.

In his solo, Segawa displayed remarkable freedom of movement with seamless shifts of weight, style and tempo, and precise and exciting turns.

In ''Strange Humors,'' George Smallwood and Terrence Poplar appeared bare-chested in funky, flared orange pants. Originally commissioned for Battle's alma mater, Parsons Dance Company, the work is performed to music by John Mackey for strings and the djembe, an African drum with distinctive resonance.

At first, the two dancers reflected disparate instrumental themes. Smallwood moved sinuously to the strings, with gorgeous isolation from the waist, while Poplar danced to the pounding drumbeat. As the instruments came together, so did the dancers, in sequences that showed aggression and conflict as well as playfulness and humor. At the end, they dropped to the floor, falling straight backward in remarkable unison.

''Strange Humors'' felt somewhat like a preview for the evening's closer, ''The Hunt,'' also commissioned for Parsons. Performed by Smallwood, Segawa, Poplar and Michael Spencer Phillips, this piece was a wild ride of masculinity, to a heavy tribal drumbeat.

The dancers' long black skirts with red linings, by costumer Mia McSwain, called to mind ancient warriors' kilts. In circle and partner formations, repeated movements such as shoulder rolls, rib thrusts, head turns and clasped hands evoked hunting rituals. When the dancers broke apart, there were glimpses of both hunter and prey, with gestures of contemporary urban conflict interspersed.

An artistic highlight of ''The Hunt'' was the way one dancer responded to the gestures of another, with the responding partner using a core impulse to propel his body as if touched or struck.

''Ella,'' a solo danced by Wolfe to Ella Fitzgerald's ''Air Mail Special,'' was an interval of pure fun. To the wordless scat-singing music, Battle's choreography had a distinctly improvisational feel: ''scat-dancing,'' perhaps. Reminiscent of a jazz musician's ''quotes'' during improvisation, the movement included surprise elements such as a running somersault, jazzy sugar-foots, and even a couple of hoedown steps.

The performance was followed by an unusually entertaining question-and-answer session with Battle and dancers Pujic and Smallwood. Smallwood delighted the many dancers in the audience by demonstrating the technique behind Battle's trademark falls. Battle answered questions with enlightening and humorous anecdotes about his choreography and influences.

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

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