For me, the Winterdances presented each year by the University of Wisconsin’s Peck School of the Arts Dance Department is a relief from the winter doldrums of February. Winterdances are performed by a variety of student dancers generally in original choreography developed by faculty members or guest choreographers. This year was no different with four very distinct pieces from UW-Milwaukee Department of Dance faculty Daniel Burkholder, Mair Culbreth, Karlies Kelley, and guest artist Kia Smith, artistic director of the South Chicago Dance Theater.
The dancers in the opening dance, Mair Culbreth’s this kind of bird flies backwards are utterly fearless. The perfect environment for Culbreth’s vision would be dancers untethered of gravity but given that impossibility, most of them performed above the stage via rope and harness. The open presented us a single dancer poised halfway up the proscenium, stage left, feet to the wall, and gracefully moving back and forth in lush motions of legs, arms, and torso. Visually mesmerizing, I held my breath in awe of the dance and a dread that she might fall. The set itself was simply the curtain and backdrop but with beautiful projections of forest scenes…primarily graceful scenes. And the dance transitioned as another solo dancer traversed the stage from one side to the other just in front of the curtain forest, repeating and recalling the graceful motions of our proscenium introduction. And then finally the curtain opens and we are presented with the entire ensemble moving from again graceful motions while suspended from the rafters…but more energetic and daring…and interacting with an apparent affection and awareness of each other. And then they also alit on the stage and added a bit more drama to their dance. All of this was accomplished against a backdrop of music (“The Three of Us” by Ben Harper, “Exit Music” (for a film) by Radiohead performed by Vitamin String Quartet, “Survival Gear” by Albert Mathias, “Wish To Continue” by Paul Westfahl) and spoken text (Train #80: The Carolinian) written by Culberth and spoken by Jeanette Winterson. This text discussed a difficult personal journey for the choreographer and a discussion on how hummingbirds fly. Our intrepid dancers here were Emma Becker, Lauren Fleury, Charlotte Reynolds, and Sami Steffen, This dance made me cry. I don’t know why. I have never cried at a dance concert before.
In a compelling tribute to migrant workers and their contributions to big projects, choreographer Karlies Kelley brings us Canal Builders, celebrating the actual builders of the Panama Canal. Playing before images and videos of the construction of the canal, our dancers bring us an evolution of sound and dance from the marching feet of workers entering the work zone to Caribbean inspired beats and dances…all driven by their own percussive efforts on the wooden boxes they carried…reminiscent of the boxes used by the laborers to carry their belongings. Decked out in work coveralls and carrying their little ‘drums’, McKenna Coartney, Giselle Leon, Miranda Parker, and Katherine Speltz, moved us through their work transitions…from hesitant co-workers to full fledged team mates in their jobs. And adding drive and flair to the sound mix, Eliana Alcocer added additional percussive effects to fill in the rhythms!
I am not sure that I would ever have expected to watch dance performed to Pink Floyd but after intermission, we were graced by Natalie Dibert, doing exactly that. Dibert performed in a very atmospheric dance using the curtain…the full stage…and smoke to bring visual life to “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” (Pts. 1-5) by Pink Floyd. The piece was choreographed by Daniel Burkholder in collaboration with Natalie Dibert. I hope in a future iteration will we see choreography from Dibert herself.
And our last offering was a large ensemble work presented by dancers, Emma Becker, McKenna Coartney, Natalie Dibert, Lauren Fleury, Miranda Parker, Charlotte Reynolds, Kalista Roling, Katherine Speltz, Anna Stachnik, Madison Westreich, and Rae Zimmerli to the music: “Kara-“ by Big X; “Shadow 5” by Max Richter (recomposed from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons); “Women Talking” from Pro Sound Effects Library; Vivaldi’s “Sinfonia for Strings in G Major” performed by Budapest Strings conducted by Karoly Botvay; Henri Gilles de Pusieux’s “Rachel Plorat Filios” performed by Early Music Consort of London conducted by David Munrow; “New Stuff” by Travis Lake. Choreographer Kia Smith gave us a dense and active piece that made it hard to focus on what might be the most compelling action as the dance progressed and the ensemble entered and left the stage…and performed in unison or broken into pairs or trios. This dance was an enchanting close for the concert.
One side note here…all four of these presentations were accompanied by music in one form or another. But the dancers weren’t actually responding to the music. They could have performed these works in silence…but the moods and environments being expressed wouldn’t have been felt as effectively without the music. The audience certainly needed the audio input to get the whole from the parts. If you want to read about my thoughts on dance vs. music, click here.
Extra credit reading? Here’s the program! It includes notes from the director and bios of many of those involved.