Observations from the 2nd annual Kansas City Dance Festival

In only a year and a half, the founders of the Kansas City Dance Festival have made good on a promise: it is officially annual.

Last weekend was the second year, and the growth between the two is impressive. While no handsome percussionists took the stage this year (all pre-recorded music, alas), the programming and performance built on their initial success. It wasn’t flawless then, nor was it this year, but projections are positive and the inchoate festival shows impressive potential, with the goal to incrementally include everybody in Kansas City – that’ll be quite the event.

Co-artistic directors/founders Anthony Krutzkamp and Logan Pachciarz organized a well-rounded presentation for local dance enthusiasts, mostly contemporary ballet, but a few classical choices, too. And it was all about the dance, with no set props, relying on lighting for mood. They expanded their reach with choreographers (mostly young) and dancers from companies as near as Oklahoma and far as Estonia.

Most of the dancers, though, were from the Kansas City Ballet and it’s informative seeing these familiar performers in different, more intimate roles, far closer to the audience in the Spencer Theater than in the Kauffman Theater.

I was completely absorbed by Molly Wagner’s performance in Todd Bolender’s “The Still Point,” presented as offering to the beloved, belated artistic director’s 100th birthday, in addition to being a force and inspiration for Kansas City dance for decades, the dedicatee for this event.

Despite an extended musical introduction, leaving the audience staring at a blank stage, the piece was worth its press. A sort of sister-wivesian scenario, with the women (Kaleena Burks and Tempe Ostergren) initially rejecting their suitors (Geoffrey Kropp and Craig Hall), but then pairing up, leaving Wagner the rejected 5th wheel, mocked and humiliated. She performed with an intensity of psychological distress, slowly raising her hands in a visual scream. She seemed appropriately wary when her suitor appeared (Pachciarz) and the emotional change was marked by the beautiful variety from their clasping hands. A final pose, reaching for each other, was incredibly moving (marred only by the tuning of the recording, egads).

Equally stunning was a guest artist to the festival, Abigail Sheppard, who performed the solo in Marco Goecke’s “Mopey,” set to C.P.E. Bach intricate string lines. Typically performed by men, she made this muscular, peculiar piece wholly her own. Goecke presents an absurd amount of awkward movement at frantic pace, breaking up the 14 minute solo with interesting exit moments, like full-armed alligator snaps or a gesture that suggested pulling at a Pinocchio-esque nose. Fingers played an important role, as she tickled her own side, or contorted her arms behind her back, fingers wiggling, awkwardly shuffling herself across the floor. Elements of self-flagellation diffused some of these funnyish moments, garnishing the piece with an uncomfortable level of distress, a semi-helpless floppiness, ending with a theatrical, but well-deserved, tremendous breathe out.

She also performed the Adagio from Marina Kesler’s “Othello” with the adonic Gabriel Davidsson. They had a sculptural connection, even when separated by distance and the dark between the spotlights, mirroring, breathing together. Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” was a poignant set choice, downbeats infused with affecting isolation.

There were local choreographers, as well. The Owen/Cox Dance Group (also sponsors of the festival) performed Jennifer Owen’s Long Day/Good Night, with original music from Brad Cox. The extended, layered lines in the music were enunciated by the dancers’ elongated, solitary, incredibly flexed movements, showing a fair amount of individuality, yet connectivity, from Michael Davis, Betty Kondo, Owen and Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye. It was a different sort of muscularity then we’d seen in “Mopey,” a nice contrast. A penetrating cymbal rhythm indicated an increased energy and the dancers partnered up, moving within each other’s delicately cupped arms. Arcing back to the original tempo, the dual over-the-head lifts were poised, set against dawn-like lighting, completed by a beautiful final pose.

Krutzkamp presented his “Troisième Roue,” playing with silhouette and sharp, birdlike movements. It was high energy, with twirls, crisp drops, convulsive gestures and jutted leg work — a fun, stimulating trio from Hall, Burks and Yoshiya Sakurai, with lots of quick asides I want to see again.

They also choose two classical pas de deux, in all their virtuosic glory: Vainonen’s “Flames of Paris” and Petipa’s cave pas de deux from “La Corsaire.” While impressive, these sorts of pieces either work or not – the emotional quality is not of first importance, typically, especially outside the context of the larger work. Here, the dancers – Laura Hunt and Alexander Peters, Yumelia Garcia and Lucas Segovia, respectively – executed their leaps and jumps and turns admirably, especially the twenty-six pirouettes from Hunt. Garcia and Segovia paired sweetly, with graceful lifts.

A set of Jonny Cash covers in Chris Stuart’s “Under the Lights” brought out all the smiles for the flirtatious, infectious performance from Mark Allyn Nimmo, Kennan McLaren, Kayla Rowser and Jon Upleger. The first portion, laced with feedback-y guitar riffs, was sexy, fierce, the dancers really gripping each other in dramatic drop catches. I loved their expressions, too, and hammy little gestures, like the cheeky full-on kiss (and cute reaction) or how Rowser fluffed her hair.

The show’s finale featured, like last year, a stunning, surprising work from Ma Cong, “Calling.” With music from Goran Bregović and Kroke (and here’s my biggest dance peeve – I hate that no one provides titles for the music they use), the six person work was by turns brash, stark and funny, the perfect mix of athleticism and artistry. The gypsy-inspired music, dense, raw tones from strings at first, then sloppy brass party tunes, then a klezmery-tango, catered to the choreographic variety within the work, from hopping over each other, to heavy, sullen movements, a literal “STOP” in sync with the lyrics and then a hilarious pose with the men’s legs angled out and the women framing their faces with extended fingers.

Theatrical entrances from mid-stage and harsh side-lighting added to the unambiguous thrill of the piece. Dancers Ostergren, Wagner, Hunt, Davis, Jolicoeur-Nye, and Sakuira (all KCB) embraced their movement completely, all out, the entire time. Costuming was simple and evocative, with the men in black pants, shirtless, and the women in gray, long-sleeved tops and full, shimmering skirts.

It may become formulaic, but I’d love to see a Ma Cong contribution every year.

With this strong a showing in only one year, the festival’s growth will hopefully compound in subsequent years, becoming a high point in not only the Kansas City scene, but the whole region. Maybe even a vaster reach? Here’s hoping.

P.S. If you missed it, KCDance has a nice selection of rehearsal and dress photos, as well as some great shots on the KCDF facebook page.

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The Remembrance of Things

We all carry, even those most thoroughly self-convinced otherwise, an internal palette that colors every moment, past and future. The present is impossible to discern, inaccuracies rife, yet it is all we have. As the crimson blends with orange or umber or sky-blue: a muddied rust. It’s that rust that bleeds through everything, a patinated through-line, which may tarnish or make more desirable dependent on one’s perspective, regarded as either corrosion or a ripening.

This rust, this weathering, this blending, is our memories and that’s only a portion the Owen/Cox Dance Group explores in their new work, “Memory Palace.”

When I first heard the title, I didn’t realize it was a real thing, a mnemonic technique dating to 50B.C. To me, the words evoked an ornate construction of ephemeral structure. In a way it is: disparate elements, strands of neurons, are placed in such a way as to access them accurately. The issue with memories lay in evaluating what is accurate, what is true. The second issue this production faces, of course, is then representing these instances corporeally, whether true or not, in a way that is accurate and discernible.

I wrote a preview for their June 28th world premiere performance for The Kansas City Star’s Sunday A&E section. You can read the story here, for a brief time.

Of course, there’s always more than makes print, just as our interiorities have icebergian depths. I interviewed cellist/chanteuse Helen Gillet and artist Peregrine Honig, received email statements from musician/sculptor Mark Southerland and composer/pianist Brad Cox, and observed a rehearsal with the dancers and choreographer Jennifer Owen. That’s a lot to distill from an already intangible topic.

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Costume concept sketch by Peregrine Honig, submitted by the artist. Honig will also curate items from designers in this season’s West 18th Street Fashion Show, wearable over movement-based garments.

The concept of their project is fascinating, even more so as you explore it yourself. For each interview, we sat outside YJ’s Snackbar on 18th Street. As the artists discussed their catalytic memories, I was hyper-aware of my own memories forming, adding to the layers I’ve absorbed sitting outside YJ’s or exploring the Crossroads over the years.

Gillet spoke with me around dusk, at the end of a long day of rehearsals, and a slight breeze foretold the storms that would drown KC for the next few days.

But that night was perfect. There is nothing more enjoyable than listening to someone speak enthusiastically about their work, watching them examine their words as they pore out, tangenting across all the synapses that connect the feelings, the sounds, the images that are stored haphazardly in their brains.

Besides Gillet’s delicate-as-crystal words, the droplets of unpretentious French accent into an English context, the careful, protective pace of her stories, I remember the slanted table, realizing that condensation was dampening my notes about mid-way through. The sounds of the avant-garde jazz combo from inside mingled with the calls of night birds as they roosted on the building tops, though some still flocked from wire to wire. I peripherally glimpsed a formation swooping, their reflection caught in the store window, briefly juxtaposed against the display of polished antlers.

She talked not only about her music, but her family, her life in New Orleans, her development as a musician, how she acquired the looping station that serves as her compositional and performance tool. Her solo performances (and most all other performances, including the upcoming “Memory Palace”) all involve the looper, affording her the ability to use all the sounds of the cello “working together to create an orchestra.” Her fluency with the machine is intuitive and she likened it to a painter’s palette. Watching her in rehearsal, I was struck by how like choreography her movements seemed, and she confirmed these thoughts. “It’s part of my footwork, it’s part of my dance. I’m comfortable with it under my feet.”

Driving home, while excited and daunted by all the information, a half-moon led the way.

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A few days later, in a respite from the rain, Honig sat across the table, decked out in a seasonally-muddled ensemble of wooly hat, patterned tights, a sheer Hadley Johnson tunic and bulky knit sweater. She described her work with sound-bite energy, clearly familiar to the interviewing process, though rambled through other descriptions as she delved into qualities of inspiration and pondering how to take inspiration into fruition with fabric.

It was her comparisons of costuming dancers, of the making of dance out of memories, that simultaneously intrigued and befuddled me. No way could I condense such a wide topic to a single article. It was a chapter of concept all to itself.

She compared these future works, and the problems she was trying to solve for them, with the current Missouri Bank Crossroads “Artboards.” “Seeing my work up on a billboard is kind of like seeing dance, like in a theatrical space. Taking anything that is small … with dance you just have to amplify it so much in order for it to be readable and seeable.”

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Right twin from Honig’s “Analogue Tendril,” photo by Libby Hanssen.

It began to drizzle. We finished talking and on my way home, again overwhelmed, I stopped to contemplate these Argentinian “deaf twin saints,” watching the wind distort the fabric as low gray clouds rolled beneath a whiter, though somehow denser, layer.

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Unfortunately, the brevity of print space didn’t allow for more than a peek into the project’s intricate intensions. Gillet is bilingual and performs many of her songs in French and English. Performing in French, when most of the audience doesn’t understand the lyrics, has helped her overcome the vulnerability of the context of these works, works that so often deal with tragedies and loss. “The French songs feel good because they bring me back into the spaces of my early childhood, a lot of joyous moments and a lot of painful moments.”

For this performance, however, she’s translated the lyrics, allowing the audience more access, deeper engagement. In fact, the entire program will be dually translated, serving as a memento of this one-night-only event.

Along with programming her original works (with contributions from Southerland and Cox), she also includes a piece from Belgian poet/farmer Julos Beaucarne. Beaucarne is a long-time friend of her father (who also earned extensive treatment in the painterly/seascape imagery of Gillet’s “Lithium”), aiding him during bouts of depression. Gillet recalled that it was a song of Beaucarne’s that she first learned to sing and play, performing it for her father’s birthday.

Beaucarne’s poem “De memoire de rose” was written after the murder of his wife, yet instead of grief or anger incorporates the sensation of waiting, of isolation, of healing, of maintaining one’s interiority.

Keep inside of you / deep inside of you / an emptiness, a space /

behind the parties / where you can rest your head /

in the night’s wind / rock your old dreams / when it’s dark

While stunning in English, it’s far more beautiful in French, sung by Gillet.

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The development of “Memory Palace” has taken over a year and a half and is the collection of many people’s emotional and physical contributions. It’s an ambitious and labyrinthine and mesmerizing project.

More than just the original five artists have contributed, drawing in skills and talents from accessory artists. There are complicated props, couture wear garments, sensory elements beyond sight and sound, and a breadth of inspiration and personal stories. The scale and complication is daunting, especially when you consider everything else these artists are juggling: Southland and Honig are co-producers of the West 18th Street Fashion Show, two weekends ago, Owen and Cox heavily contributed to the success of the 2nd annual Kansas City Dance Festival this past weekend, and Gillet has been touring relentless between rehearsal stops in Kansas City.

Even re-examining what I’ve been told about the production I don’t know what to expect and I’m thrilled. As a Proust-enthusiast, delving into memory’s minutia is a stimulating prospect, a treasure hunt of sorts.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

Being allowed to delve into someone else’s memory? That sounds like a night worth sharing.

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REVIEW: Kansas City Chamber Orchestra

I reviewed the Kansas City Chamber Orchestra for The Kansas City Star.

For a brief time, you can read the review here.

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REVIEW: Kansas City Symphony Finale

I reviewed the Kansas City Symphony’s finale concert for The Kansas City Star.

For a brief time, you can read the review here.

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REVIEW: Kansas City Symphony’s Verdi Requiem

I reviewed the Kansas City Symphony’s Verdi Requiem for The Kansas City Star.

For a brief time, read the review here.

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REVIEW: Trey McIntyre Project

I reviewed the Trey McIntyre Project’s farewell tour performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts for The Kansas City Star. The ensemble was presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series.

For a brief time, read the review here.

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REVIEW: KCBallet “Cinderella”

I reviewed the Kansas City Ballet’s production of “Cinderella,” choreographed by Victoria Morgan. This was the first Kansas City hearing of the Prokofiev score in its entirety.

For a  brief time, read the review here.

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