Last summer, Daryl Foster wrote here of the Atlanta dancer’s dilemma: whether to leave for opportunities in larger cites or stay and help build the local dance community. About three years ago, Angela Harris chose the latter, founding Dance Canvas, a presenting organization for emerging choreographers.
Dance Canvas’ third annual Fall Performance Series, Friday evening at the 14th Street Playhouse, showed that the growing organization is striving to elevate standards for dance in Atlanta, bringing college- and studio-level work to a more polished, professional level.
Dancers in Atlanta have plenty of opportunities for solid training, but outside of large institutions — companies like Atlanta Ballet, the Georgia Ballet and several colleges — choreographers have few chances to show their work and improve their craft. Most tend to teach and are limited by their students’ technical abilities. Dance Canvas connects these choreographers with professionally trained dancers, and Harris’ mix-and-match strategy is producing strong results.
Works are chosen partly for accessibility and represent a diverse sampling of styles — contemporary ballet, hip-hop, tap — part of an audience-building plan that, again, seems to be working. Last year the playhouse’s 185-seat Stage 2 theater was filled beyond capacity; this year the audience nearly filled the 375-seat Main Stage on both nights. Choreographers came in at a range of levels and experience, from seasoned professionals to one remarkable teenager.
Lonnie Davis, Dance Canvas veteran and established teacher, challenged a dozen strong dancers with “Kinetic” in his highly physical style, which blended the technical demands of ballet with the phrasing and speed of jazz dancing, the rhythmic, articulated spine of African dance, and the powerhouse spatial clarity of Lester Horton technique. To driving rhythms, the dancers moved from one vignette to the next, including some partnering sequences, notably a duet with sections that seemed to retrograde conventional partnering work to surprising effect.
One of the most refreshing works was Tri-Cities High School senior Whitney Jackson’s “Essence of Love,” created last summer in Dance Canvas’ high school program, DC Next. Clad in white, Jasmine Roberts and Xavier DeMar danced to a song by Des’ree, which resonated with a sense of yearning. Familiar arabesque suspensions, falls and supports were phrased and ordered with an intuitive, emotional understanding that suggested this young choreographer has extraordinary talent.
The pace quickened with cascading tap rhythms in Ray Hall’s quartet “Metal Rhythms.” Hall and three lady tappers, expertly shifting from one intricate pattern to the next, performed with a captivating mix of technical mastery and casual nonchalance.
Harris’ contemporary pas de trois “Gravitational Pull” explored spatial tensions — body lines stretching from floor to ceiling and horizontal pulls from one elbow to the opposite fingertips. Devoid of classical curves, these straight lines, performed to a driving Taiko drum rhythm, created a feeling of absoluteness that translated into a steely and resolute quality. In contrast, gently curved arm gestures reaching out from one to another suggested a need for human connection and support. The trio seemed organically built around the dancers’ strengths, showing their best qualities and stretching them a little.
Marci Lefkoff’s finale, “Nothing’s as Cool As …,” set to music by Club des Belugas, paid tribute to bebop and swing, as a vocalist called out names of great jazz musicians and singers of the era. An ensemble of 13 dancers, dressed to suggest 1940s style, zipped through a fabulously staged mix of technical jazz with a dash of Jack Cole: mesmerizing.