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Review: Dance Canvas showcase paints bright picture of future

Colbie Zeno (left) and Jennifer Davis-Mason in Robert Mason's "Apocalypse of the Soul."
Dance Canvas’ fourth annual showcase for emerging choreographers, last weekend at the Woodruff Arts Center’s 14th Street Playhouse, may have been hit-and-miss in places, but the best works were deeply emotive and showed strong promise for the future of Atlanta’s dance scene.

The show-stopper was Robert Mason’s “Apocalypse of the Soul,” performed by Colbie Zeno and Jennifer Davis-Mason, who is Mason’s wife and the co-founder of the new City Gate Dance Theater.

The stage lights arose upon a stark image of Davis-Mason alone in a rocking chair in an old, oversized nightgown. After pulling herself from the chair, she moved with slow and vulnerable displays of pain, fear and turmoil that were reminiscent of the strong universal woman reaching for life and freedom in Alvin Ailey’s famous solo “Cry.” Her extraordinary strength and flexibility were displayed in an especially poignant moment when she clung to her chest and slowly extended her leg vertically past her shoulder and head, then held it there with ease. The combination of this incredible technique and Zeno’s emotional response to Davis-Mason’s symbolic death from cancer brought many audience members to their feet.

Following such a moving duet, “The Liberation” with Emily Kay Vanderkley, a dancer with a colorful eight-year performance background with Royal Caribbean International Cruise Line, who was sponsored by Dance 101, came as a disappointment. The piece not only lacked depth but contradicted its own purported theme of women’s liberation.

It began with imagery of World War II’s Rosie the Riveter and a glimpse of the dancers’ costumes of bandanas, plaid shirts and dark jeans, leading one to expect a piece dealing with working women’s role and their importance in society. But the dancers quickly emerged as oversexualized beings looking to claim liberation through domination and sex appeal. With hips swaying, fast turns and ecstatic jumps and leaps that echoed competitive dance, they took turns pouncing on a stereotypical chauvinistic male.

The choreographer had the potential to make this a meaningful piece. Instead, it digressed and treated a complicated matter simplistically. Rather than achieving the ideal of women’s liberation, these women became further entangled in bondage through commercialized imagery and sexual tension.

One of the most beautiful works on the program was “Contra Mores” by Jamie McCord, a Kennesaw State University student. Lit with lush and warm hues, her choreography merged the precision of ballet with intriguing modern techniques.

Exhibiting highly angular and physical movement throughout, two dancers would suddenly grasp and grope each other in clumsy hugs and embraces only to suddenly pull away. At other times, all the dancers would come together to lean forward into space, rub their forearms against an invisible surface with hurried breaths and then timidly hunch over to the ground. McCord’s insightful work brought flavor and depth to Dance Canvas, despite its unexplainable and intriguing abstractions.

Other pieces, such as “Between the Worlds” by Tracy Vogt of Philadanco, were charming and graceful visual treats. Dance Canvas Production Coordinator Dana Woodruff’s “Path” was minimalist by comparison, but it succeeded with its direct portrayal of an individual finding her way.

Choreographer Sandra Parks, a former soloist with the Four Seasons Ballet and Wu-I Dance Company in Taiwan, used her movement to express the sad reality of Chinese orphans who wait up to four years for adoption in America. Her intriguing isolations, sporadic sequences and sudden pauses conveyed both longing and hope.

A fitting finale was “The ‘Movement’ ” by Angela Harris, Dance Canvas’ executive artistic director. Set en pointe to music by Steve Reich and the Chicago Afrobeat Project, it progressed from a mellow tempo to an enlivened, courageous battle cry. The dancers executed sharp turns, swift leaps and sudden head jerks, and broke with flair from structured dance into pedestrian walks full of attitude. The passion and exuberance of the piece reflected Dance Canvas itself, which operates with the same kind of goal-oriented focus and audacity year-round.

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