By MIKE DUNHAM
Alaska Dance Theatre’s initiative to bring in gifted young dancers from major markets for extended residencies – basically laying the groundwork for a full-time professional dance company in Anchorage – paid off in a big way with an impressive “Othello” last month.
The follow-up now onstage at the Discovery Theatre may not be quite as compelling, but it is still an ambitious showcase deserving the attention of those curious about where artistic creativity in our city is heading.
For “Solos and Arias” choreographer Gillmer Duran pairs motion and song. Singers associated with Anchorage Opera perform art songs and operatic hits while dancers present a visual expression of the words and music. Some of the pieces are fairly predictable; for instance “Musetta’s Waltz,” sung by Kate Egan, is danced with suitable coquettishness by Sarah Grunwaldt.
The more profound dances tend to accompany the more anguished songs, as in the plea for mercy, “Pieta, Signore” sung by Steven Dixon and danced by Thomas Phelan. Or, in what is arguably the choreographic high point, Mahler’s song, “I am lost to the world.” Mina Lawton twisted through two verses in a straight jacket, her legs free, but hands bound behind her back. In the third verse the arms came loose, the unoccupied long sleeves flapping like banners before the singer, Nancy Caudill, retied them and the complacent Lawton curled up in a fetal position.
There was some conflict here for the listener used to looking at the singer in a song recital. In some cases the dancer and vocalist interacted with one another or the dancer imitated the singers gestures. In general the singer addressed the dancer as if confiding in their secret self. At other times the movement seemed to be a distraction from the music. “Vesti la giubba,” sung by Benjamin Bongers, was particularly conflicted in a rather delicious way. The music is overwhelming and complete in itself; but when dancer Bennyroyce Royon stepped through a frame – ostensibly of a mirror – that didn’t look big enough to fit his head, the visual impression snatched all of one’s attention.
The “arias” part closed the evening with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” sung by Caudill (Janet Carr Campell accompanied all of the live singing at the piano) with all six dancers on the program. Earlier in the evening, an array of Japanese lanterns for a duet from “Madame Butterfly” proved enchanting. But I was perplexed when the same effect was attempted with empty dresses suspended overhead for the Schubert.
The first half of the program, “Celebratory,” was a richly rewarding piece set to violin concertos by Bach. Duran makes a nod toward Paul Taylor’s “Brandenburgs,” focusing on precise pairings, unisons, mirror images and a strong sense of geometry in motion – which might be one definition of the art of dance. But “Celebratory” was also salted with numerous individual gestures, head and shoulder shakes, that Taylor did not employ.
Several passages for solo violin featured a turn by a solo dancer, the ensemble joining in as the rest of the orchestra surged. This gave a solid feeling of connection between the dance and music, creating a very satisfying whole. The precision of the dancers – who included Niki Maple, Steven Melendez and Thomas Phelan in addition to those named above – matched the precision of the recorded ensemble’s reading of the score. It was a more traditional, balletic offering than the rarefied song-and-dance portion of the program, but highly rewarding.
The company plans to keep pushing the envelope next season. It has been announced that dance fans can look forward to, among other things, a full length ballet using the music of Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline. Also on tap next season, a reprise of Duran’s reshaped “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and more contemporary work. There are rumors that “Othello” may also be revisited, but nothing certain at this time.
“Solos and Arias” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday in the Discovery Theatre. Tickets are $16.25-$30 at centertix.net.