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Review: Dance Canvas opens door for next generation of choreographers

Students from Kennesaw State University in Zachary Richardson's "Winergy." (Photo by Richard Calmes)
Students from Kennesaw State University in Zachary Richardson's "Winergy." (Photo by Richard Calmes)

Last weekend, Dance Canvas celebrated its fifth-anniversary season with “Introducing the Next Generation,” a showcase of works by emerging local choreographers. A key component of the organization’s mission, said founder and Artistic Director Angela Harris, is mentorship in both the artistic and business aspects of professional dance.

Dance Canvas puts out a call, chooses promising choreographers and then provides resources to help start and develop their careers. A majority of these emerging artists come to the organization steeped in studio and/or commercial dance, and Dance Canvas gives them the opportunity to present their work in a professional concert venue.

This year’s venue was the 14th Street Playhouse, and the program, unlike most professional dance performances in Atlanta, featured an amalgamation of styles. The talented young dancers whipped out lyrical jazz, tap and contemporary ballet en pointe (the latter is not often seen outside the city’s ballet companies), sometimes in the same piece. But as with most art forms, too many ideas can muddy the waters, and the evening’s most successful works were those that paired a focused concept with innovative movement.

A clear audience favorite was Zachary Richardson’s “Winergy,” a wild little dance set apart from the rest by its unexpected opening image. A line of women, all wearing electric-blue wigs, stood in front of an industrial fan placed toward the back of the stage. Gasps of delight were audible as the dancers shook their hair at the fan and the choppy bob-styles tousled in the wind.

Though it continued long after the point was made, the most satisfying elements of this piece were those that gave it a mysterious and distinct point of view. Deadpan expressions contrasted the familiar foot stamps and arm circles of Lady Gaga-inspired club dance. The movement, relentless in its repetition, both followed and juxtaposed the beat-driven music. But the dark lighting obscured the strange costumes and shadowed much of the movement’s intricacy. I couldn’t decide whether the lighting was annoying or interesting, but I appreciated having to think about it.

Less mysterious but no less entertaining was Kassandra Taylor Newberry’s “(con)version.” Set to high-energy music by the Junkman, the work displayed a distinct and quirky movement language: the punch of hip-hop coupled with the big lifts and dynamic range of contemporary dance. Newberry is clearly practiced in the art of moving large casts around a stage, and the choreography, with its intricate patterns and constantly shifting groups, was a structural achievement.

Context was loosely planted at the start when one dancer pulled off her socks and tossed them to the floor with theatrical anger. Presumably (because this is a fairly common choreographic theme), this gesture was intended to symbolize a shedding of convention or a “fed-up” proclamation of individuality. But the movement to come didn’t follow up or expand upon this theme. The meaning behind the socks, which all the dancers wore, was quickly forgotten and replaced by another, more obvious purpose: to be able to run and slide across the stage with ease.

Richardson, a student at Kennesaw State University, and Newberry, an established teacher and professional dancer, represent two ends of the spectrum for the fulfillment of Dance Canvas’ mission. But like the other six choreographers on the program, their choreographic careers in Atlanta are just beginning, and Dance Canvas provided the necessary jumping-off point.

My hope in the coming years is that the “next generation” of choreographers will explore their own movement language and move away from the familiar showmanship that pervades so much studio and commercial dance. Many of the dancers on the evening’s program displayed a high level of technicality that could be better served by more innovative and personal movement choices. One can unfold one’s leg to the side and show off the balance only so many times before the movement loses its ability to impress. Then when the audience is asked to believe that that same movement means “I’m starving” in one piece, then “I’m enlightened” in another, then “I’m homeless” in another and then “I’m upset about the constrictions of ballet convention” in yet another, the intention behind every piece is called into question.

Dance Canvas is an admirable organization that has advanced and made visible varying styles of dance in Atlanta. And for many audience members, showmanship is the most accessible entry point into a largely unknown art form. But my other hope is that, at its best, Dance Canvas will be true to its name. It will be a canvas, a blank slate, on which new choreographers can cut their teeth and be free to discover their individuality through experimentation.

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