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Dance fervor

Moving images in the UM Spring Dance Showcase

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A painter or choreographer once chided me for calling an artwork “interesting.” Apparently, “interesting,” when applied to a work of art, is akin to telling a boy in junior high school that you like him “as a friend.” In other words, he stirs not your heart. He makes your pulse regular. He is easy to be with, comfortable, safe and familiar. He summons no dreams, and disturbs your sleep not a jot.

“Interesting,” when applied to an artwork, means you really think a lot of it and would like to see it again sometime, if you’re not doing anything else.

That is bad. From here on out, I am down on interesting.

The University of Montana Spring Dance Showcase has a few interesting (read: nice guy) pieces that, with just a few adjustments, could go wonderfully bad. They could become “sick”—a current middle-school street term for “good.” Do those who use this term “sick” think that to be sick really is good? No, of course not. No, “sick” is a pleasing word for “good” because of the surprising friction between the choice of this particular adjective and whatever adjective was expected. And it seems to be a similar friction, a tension between expectation and delivery, that goes into making a good dance.

But does that mean that every dance has to knock itself out to be different? Or that anything apparently conventional simply must be satirical or spoofey? The one ballet work in this year’s program, “En Si Bemol Mineur,” choreographed by Keeley Love, was satisfying once I realized that I was going to see just that—ballet. Somehow, it fulfilled the need to be intriguing just by being straight. I watched intently, waiting for a surprise that didn’t come. (Which left me surprised.)

In contrast, the other mostly straightforward work—three cowboys tap dancing in “Rodeo,” choreographed by Tara Prestholdt—had enough spoof that I wanted more. It begged for either a Shriner in a mini-car to periodically weave among the dancers, or a Noh actor to inch his way across the stage at an angle. This tap dance was in the “nice to be with, as a friend” category; it was worthy, but it could have been more. I did love the lighting. I could half close my eyes and appreciate just the three-hatted figures against the big, blue sky.

I was without a program when I saw the dress rehearsal Monday night. So I apologize, as the dancers must go unacknowledged. As for the choreography, I saw Ragsdalian influences in several of these pieces. Most distinctive in this respect is a stuttering motion of the hands, which I believe UM Dance Professor Amy Ragsdale likes to use in her choreography. It is a motion on its way to somewhere else, briefly interrupted. The effect is that of a “blip,” as if I were viewing the dance on video and paused it for half a heartbeat. Sometimes this makes a dancer seem robotic, as if he or she were paused/unpaused by someone else, but other times it can make a dance seem self-transcribed, as if the dancer is saying, “And here is this way of moving my arms.”

This stop/start motion was present in the first number, “Momenta,” choreographed by Abbey Stevens, one of my favorites of the evening. A voice intones a math lecture, raucous music soon drowns her out even as math problems flash overhead, dancers scurry and jerk hither and thither. They have racing stripes down their black jumpsuits. I know I’m stuck on the middle-school theme here, but it seems to convey perfectly how math class undoubtedly is experienced at that age, even if there is a lot of physics. I’m not sure if the dancing is meant to replicate the principles of physics. If so, I like the contrast between the dry facts and the turbulent world.

Another of my favorites is a dance called “Ophelia,” choreographed by Liz McNair. This involves a coterie of dancers in masks—not African masks or fancy dress masks, but closer to Noh drama masks, with flat expressions and regular features. One dancer is maskless and the work seems to be about her. There is murmuring, and then a female voice singing about “Ophelia.” White streamers spring unexpectedly from her black dress and the masked dancers hold her like a fly in a web. There are allusions to straitjackets and a particular movement of making spider fingers all over one’s body, invoking madness. But there is also a sense of repose and peace lurking in there as well. This is one of those dances that allows me to unhook my mind and sink into a vague emotion that feels like memory. The words “all alone” surface from the mesh of dance, masks, and music.

Afterwards I said: “That was interesting.” But you know what I mean.

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