The choice of companies for this year’s Modern Dance Series at the Duncan Theatre in Lake Worth Beach is a celebration, not just of the modern dance companies that made it through the pandemic, but of those that have been around for decades and are on the verge of becoming historic institutions.
Parsons Dance (which opened the series) is 40 years old, and Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble is more than 50 years old. As is Pilobolus, which is celebrating with The Big Five-Oh! (March 4 and 5), and the Martha Graham Company, which closes the Duncan’s dance season (March 25 and 26), is on its 75th Anniversary Tour.
What keeps a dance company thriving for so many years? In so many instances, it is the leadership, passion and perseverance of the artistic director. Such is the case with the Denver-based Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, which was founded more than five decades ago with the mission of uniting people of all ages through the language of dance as they “explore the human condition, champion social justice … and ultimately celebrate the complexity of life through movement.”
Artistic Director Cleo Parker Robinson was at hand at the performance Feb. 4 at the Duncan Theatre and took the opportunity to talk both before and after the show. Full of life and sass, the septuagenarian wearing a sequined mask charmed the audience with her ad-lib comments, personal stories of her life and running her company and school – none of which would still exist without her grit.
The performance began with The Four Journeys, which had its world premiere in 2021 and is
“dedicated to identifying the threads that connect our cultures,” according to the program notes. Choreographed by Amalia Viviana Basanta Hernández, artistic director of Ballet Folklórico de Mexico, The Four Journeys reflects the Mexican folkloric story of Catarina de San Juan, “La China Poblana,” as she journeyed from India to 17th-century Mexico.
The role of Catarina was danced expressively by Samiyah Lynnice. Divided into 12 sections whose titles outlined the scope of the journeys, the dance rolled on with the aid of stylized projections on the scrim and music composed by Arturo Márquez. The projections were most likely intended to help the audience follow the complicated story however, I found the relationship between the dancing and the visuals to be a tug-of-war. My eye was constantly drawn away from the dancers and pulled towards the volatile and too expansive animation and 3D design of Taketo Kobayashi.
Parker Robinson’s choreography was represented in three excerpts from her 1984 work Spiritual Suite. In the style we come to think of when we think of choreographer Alvin Ailey, “Mary Don’t You Weep” showed three women wrapped in head shawls mourning the loss of a dearly departed, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” was dramatic solo material for two male dancers and the full ensemble danced “Roll Me Through the Rushes Like Moses” dressed in bright colors.
Two newish works were presented in the second half of the program and they really perked up the show. In fact, the dancers looked like a completely different group. Packing in at least quadruple the amount of movement into each music phrase, the dancers looked sleek, contemporary and daring as they ripped across the stage. The evening started to sizzle.
In Catharsis, created in 2017, choreographer Garfield Lemonius used three familiar contemporary musical compositions by three minimalist composers — Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang, prolific Italian composer Ezio Bosso, and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
Perhaps it was the title Catharsis that inspired the costumes that the dancers wore. With both
the men and the women wearing the same costume of blue satin corsets laced up tightly in the back and voluminous black pants, the dancers released themselves from their costumes as they danced each section. First the women shed the constraints of the long pants to be bare-legged while still corseted, and then the men dispensed with their corsets to be bare-chested while still wearing the full-legged pants.
Lemonius’ choreography was well-crafted, with sharp and fast carved movement, exciting lifts and sophisticated transitions between sections that kept our attention. The lighting design by Trey Grimes, with its rectangular lit pools of light and unusual color choices (magenta scrim and yellow side lighting), was edgy and kept the costumes from dictating the tone of the work. Scattered solos, duets, trios as well as ensemble sections kept the work moving along. Corey Boatner, a handsome and elegant dancer, was highlighted in a strong beginning solo and again, towards the end, in another solo.
Free?, the work that closed the program, undoubtedly had the choreography with the most contemporary and compelling view on social issues. Commissioned by the company and choreographed in 2014 by Lorenzo “Rennie” Harris, Free? “utilized the vernacular of ‘house’ dance to recall significant events in American history such as the Civil Rights Act … the assassination of Malcom X… the Voting Rights Act… and the Watts rebellion” as well as other important events from the 1960s, according to the program notes.
To cover such a wide range of events, Harris chose to project iconic black-and-white photos of the civil unrest in the 1960s with an overlay of soundbites from important speeches from that era. The still images on the scrim were filmed and moved slowly on the back scrim from side to side or zoomed in and out as the ensemble dancers, dressed is urban streetwear and bathed in warm red light, quietly moved across the stage.
The juxtaposition of the projected video against the action onstage was a little unsettling at first and most likely, this was intentional. It was as if one was on a boat watching the rise and swell of the ocean against a steady shoreline. This queasy slow pace gave time to absorb both the strength of the words and the power of the images as well as the sense of community and shared bond that the dancers evoked in their simple movements.
A single figure, Chloe Grant Abel, wandered in the crowd and every once in a while, a dancer would stop and embrace a fellow dancer as if to say – we are still in this, but we’re in this together – this journey to be heard and to be seen. The video projections by Jordan Lugenbeel were much more integral to the choreography than those that were in the first work, The Four Journeys.
Focused and fully connected to the message of the work, the performers blurred together as people do in crowded urban settings. Grooving to the loud, bass heavy sounds of house music by Malouma, Omar Faruk Tekbilek and Fase, the dancers seemed so comfortable as they slipped into jacking, lofting and showing off fast and intricate footwork, the three main elements of house dancing.
Dressed in a slouch white hat and oversized sweatshirt, YooJung Hahn managed to stand out from the crowd and catch my eye, and not for the first time, in this dance. A strong dancer with beautiful articulation and clarity, she showed in Free? how wide her range of movement is as she found her groove in the riffs of the house music.