Monica Campbell and Dancers

Artistic Director Monica Campbell premiered her new company Monica Campbell & Dancers with an evening of work at the Egyptian Theater in Ogden. The concert showcased 4 works by Ms. Campbell including the premiere of  “The Spring”. The show also presented “So…what now?” by Chai Chi Chang.

My night began with a single and very simple statement “I want to see some good dancing,” and that’s precisely what I got. The evening was full of strong and versatile movers enthralling me and filling me with the envy of not being one of them, sweating, huffing, puffing and throwing themselves on stage. These dancers, mostly composed of Utah Valley University students and alum, demonstrated a strong showcase of the bountiful life dance has in this state.

Speaking solely on the subject of the company members, it was refreshing to see such a cohesive cast. It was evident that Ms. Campbell is not only interested in training strong, dynamic dancers but that as a creative director she takes coaching them very seriously. I prefer to see an ensemble that looks like they are working under the same umbrella of one creative mind, that are cohesively trying to embody a physical ideology. The majority of the work I have seen in this city doesn’t necessarily focus on the idea of cultivating a brand through their dancers. The work of many local choreographers embraces the individual identity and although this is something to cherish as it provides the work to be expressed in different way, I feel that the audience never quite get the feeling you know the choreographer’s philosophy about the moving body, which often informs and helps crystallize the subjects of their work. There was no doubt that when you looked on stage you knew these dancers were working to reveal a very specific aesthetic — that these dancers were Ms. Campbell dancers.

With the exception of the work by Chi Chang, the evening showcased one single creative mind, and when looking at a full night you begin to see creative patterns and unfolding aesthetic preferences but you also have to recognize the bravery and hard work it takes to complete one piece of choreography and imagine that happening times ten when producing an entire show.  I have played with the idea of creating a show of my own work and the thought of planning the event makes me buckle at the knees. With that said, I have to congratulate Ms. Cambell on the production quality of this show. It was immaculate.

The night began with “So…what now?”, Chi Chang’s duet performed by Monica Campbell and Jill Voorhees Edwards.  The piece began with the curtain rising on bundles of towels folded into small cubes and placed up stage in a pathway from one side of the stage to the other. This piece was set in two movements, the first composed of abstracted images that did not reach beyond the proximities of the upper body and  varying in speed without seeming to be too exhausting or engaging. Throughout the first section Ms. Edwards continuously undressed by taking off what appeared to be over 10 or 15 thin-layered shirts, one after the other. To what effect? Perhaps it was a study on the trance-like state evoked by repetition but my blind eye did not catch why there needed to be that many shirts, it seemed enough after the first two or three. That was not the only element of the work that left me wondering the significance of why they were present on stage. The folded towels were not utilized as props but as a component of a very dull spatial design.  During the first movement I began to wonder, are these going to be layered on stage? Are they going to step on them? Are they going to kick them? What was their purpose? Sadly, these just laid dormant in their insignificant shapes, adorning the back layer of the stage with little to no life in them. The second movement of this work had more full-range movement. The two dancers moved through space with a distinct mature sensibility but again I wondered to what effect? This was my second run with this dance and I still don’t get it. What I did appreciate about the work is the experience of witnessing two mature dancers present in the same space. There was a type of serenity that I miss seeing on stage and it was a very nice gift to take with me.

“The Final Hours” (an excerpt) was performed by Mindy Houston, Hannah Braegger and Kylie Bronk. The three exceptional dancers were intertwined in a dependent partnership and tied up with an appearance of grief, fright and valor. I have seen this work three times now, once as part of its major body  and I find that this excerpts speaks volumes without over-dramatizating but by relying on the ability to express tone and voice through the small nuances between big movements. For example, there is a motif in which the three dancers stand hugging each other. In the phrasing they repeat a sequence of upper body rolls, collapses and leg lifts. However, its not the movements that appear most prominently but the moments in between. The weight bearing shows a type of mourning that accentuates these other movements and extends the internal wailing happening between the three women. This was by far my favorite piece of the night.

“Breathing Room”, was a duet performed by Kim Campa and Rick Santizo. The dance started with a square placed center stage, composed of partitioned platforms no more than a foot high.  The movements resembled a combination of playful pantomime and flirtatious acts between two lovers.  The use of acrobatic stunts makes evident that these dancers are best considered stunt men/women with a finesse of a dancer. As the dance progressed so did the level of difficulty, it was incredible to see the man lift the woman to complete 360 degree lift in a single sweep only to catch her straight into a second rotation with such flawless continuity. I have never been a fan of cheesy, purposefully “funny” or “cute” dances and this one was not the exception. The absence of authenticity and reality were really off putting. I was once engaged in a conversation about the same topic and at point my friend Nancy said to me, “Efren, you’re just a humanist and it’s ok!” and it was then I realized that I want my dances and those I see to have some degree of reality that reflect what my human experience is like, not hyperbole.

The evening ended with the premier of “The Spring”, a 30 minute work inspired by “the revolutionary wave of demonstrations, protest and wars occurring in the Arab world beginning in December 2010,” as stated by Ms. Campbell. To some degree this was the Mount Everest of the show, the one work that surpassed difficulty not only based on its length and cast of 12, but also a subject matter so heavy that you wonder what essences the choreographer was trying to grasp about it. Also, as an audience member it left me to wonder how different this new work was going to be in comparison to “The Final Hours”, which had a  similar topic of interest.

The work started with the cast facing upstage, slowly trickling downstage while walking backwards. Some were alone, others held hands as couples or trios.  The first soloist was Jaclyn Brown, who did a fantastic job at setting up a tone of vulnerability, strength, and loss with a series of swirling, sweeping phrases portraying a dynamic form and creating shapes with a crisp attitude much like a Beta Fish. There was such strength and accessibility to her movement without being overly dramatic and while still calling for attention despite the other 12 bodies on the stage. What a remarkable task. I have to admit I could have done with a less codified structure to some of her movements and a few less turns but by the end of her solo, the humanist in me was ready to feel.  The piece continued to build up momentum, in a less crowded manner by having sections divide into smaller groups. There were series of trios and a duet that repeated at the beginning of the work and again towards the end. There were  smaller groups of intertwining sixes and finally concluding in an mélange made up of the entire cast. The movement swept through and across the stage with power, intensity and clarity of direction much like military arrangements.

Once the dance started there wasn’t a moment of rest, even the moments of lamentation or suffering (as portrayed by very pantomime movements of angst facing straight into the audience or emotional hugs) the speed and the push of the movement portrayed the constant chaotic and loss of stillness that can often occur in a moment of chaos.

It was undeniable that these dancers were committed to making this dance come alive, to live in it, fully embodied and to reject the nuance or thought of lacking the energy to push through. Perhaps this portrayal on behalf of the dancers was an essence Ms. Cambell was looking to channel about people that are often midst turmoil.  However, it wasn’t until the end of the piece when the entire group came on stage to dance to a beautiful and stark folk like song that I could see that the piece was about human beings, a community and not just a study of phrases. Perhaps it was this dynamic shift in the end that let me see the dance for something else, a portrayal of people.

As I listened to that last song, I immediately channeled  the opening solo and my heart began to sink with sorrow. Just as quickly, I felt dissatisfied with thinking of how many more similar feelings I had probably missed in the rest of the dance. I asked a lot of internal questions:

Did I want a moment of rest, or more dynamic disparities, a different order to the work so that I could see that I was about a community and not a panel of strangers walking the same path?  Did I want a change of music so that it didn’t feel like I had been listening to the same atmospheric music as present in the rest of the show? What about if it had been done to classical music instead of the typical modern-style sound we often experience? What if they were smiling or appeared pleasant during moments that the music so obviously displayed a heavier more dark tone? Before the lights were brought up for the bows, I wondered, was this a variation of “The Hours?” A continuation? Or did it appear so similar because the movement and dancers had been so vividly molded to appear of a similar bodily aesthetic?

So many questions rushed through me in such a brief moment, that it wasn’t until I found myself standing with the room applauding to the cast and its creative director that I realized it wasn’t about finding clarity right away. That it was about me as a creative mind sitting in thought as a byproduct of the performance. Me, wanting to re-arrange the dance, select the new music to best suit its body based on my aesthetic or the feelings I wanted to surge through my body were an unexpected gift. I wanted good dancing and I got it. What I did not realize was that I also wanted to be inspired and I was. Besides, the dances we watch on stage are only one version of the puzzle.

Efren Corado is a choreographer and performer based in SLC.