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Not Quite Winging It
Danceworks builds on improv in "Serendipity."

Dani Kuepper's "The Disenchantment of Helium," from the show "Serendipity." (photo by Mark Frohna)

There’s beauty of all sorts to be found in Serendipity, the new show by the Danceworks Performance Company. Built around the joys of dance improvisation, the pieces are nonetheless mostly polished and thoughtfully constructed.

Improvisation is not uncommon in dance these days. A choreographer will often use it as a way to build a vocabulary or explore ideas before settling on a firmer structure or set of motifs for a particular work. But sometimes its an end in itself. To open this program, Joelle Worm gave a group of eight dancers a set of instructions and had them act on them according to their own devices. “In Passing” began with a sort of chain-gang follow the leader, and then morphed into a section in which individual dancers broke out of a still cluster of bodies to articulate a short vocal line in the music. Moving from compact to expansive, the piece then explored the entire space, moving bodies around individually and in pairs, each dancer moving to a more-or-less defined set of gestures.

The rest of the dances were less off-the-cuff--perhaps developed with improv techniques, they unfolded with more direction and structure. Dani Kuepper danced her own comic solo, a comic winner that told a story through mime and expressive gesture. Kim Johnson-Rockafellow’s gently powerful “Be Here Now” was a psychological study that used iconic gestures—dancers tugged at their loose clothing and tried to pluck things from an invisible environment—and centered, Eastern stillness to create a brief but mystical journey. Liz Tesch’s “One Last Thing” was a quiet meditation on mortality, danced by Tesch to an Irish ballad beautifully sung by Rachel Payden.

Kuepper’s “The Disenchantment of Helium” was as idiosyncratic as its title. Six dancers in black and red (think semi-dressy evening out) offered a study in sudden contrasts. Violent convulsions bumped up against sipping tea in prissy elegance. Characters seemed vibrant and athletic one moment, aged and infirm the next. There’s society gossip, a strutting chicken, and a mysterious balloon (the helium, I presume) carried around like a holy relic, then released to the rapt crowd. Mysterious, but filled with the pleasure of fresh ideas and movement.

The highlight for me was Emma Draves’s “The Violet Hour.” Draves is a Chicago choreographer whose style is built on a combination of modern dance and South Indian Bharatanatyam traditions. This quartet (danced by Melissa Anderson, Johnson-Rockafellow, Christal Wagner and Liz Zastros) seemed a seamless blend of traditions—the fluid and sometimes angular extensions of modern dance and the weighty, heel-rooted compactness of the Indian tradition. It was a whirlwind of innovative energy.

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