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Dance Review:

"SPECTRUM DANCES" at The Performance Loft

BY LUCIA MAURO

Forums for new choreography are always welcome. But quite often dance makers find themselves creating in isolation. So producer-dancer-choreographer Dmitri Peskov decided that a one-on-one mentoring structure would foster a more dynamic and mutually beneficial model for choreographers to explore their artistic voices.

"Spectrum Dances: Emerging and Established Voices" is his answer. The project paired three sets of choreographers, whose new pieces debuted Aug. 18 at The Performance Loft. Performances continue Aug. 25 and 26.

Not only does this endeavor provide up-and-coming artists with an opportunity to test their vision on an audience, it also sets a supportive atmosphere for education and experimentation. Not all the choreographers represented on the "Spectrum Dances" program have crafted fully realized works. But viewers will have a chance to experience the symbiotic relationship that exists between mentor and student – as well as each artist’s unique contribution.

Overall, the first half of the program shows a greater range of movement vocabulary and thematic complexity than the second act. It also demonstrates how an emerging choreographer like Peskov can evoke anguish and hope and achieve dramatic subtlety in a more sprawling five-part ensemble piece, while a stark solo by Anna Simone Levin can encompass a certain existentialist grandeur.

Peskov’s "1938-1954," set to Shostakovich’s "String Quartet No. 8," was inspired by his Russian grandmother’s memoirs of her internment in a Stalinist concentration camp. His eight women dancers – dressed in drab vintage dresses – must reach very deep into their souls and let their bodies speak in ways that are more akin to acting than dancing.

The artists – Buffy Barfoot, Christi Dentro, Erin Helman, Stephanie Lamb, Hannah Leben, Julie Prszybyski, Kerrie Thoma and Tracee Westmoreland -- are flawless and varied in their movingly triumphant portrayals. The effect is mesmerizing and unsettling as the women reluctantly free themselves of their meager possessions – like a gold scarf and a silk handkerchief.

Yet despite Peskov’s linear story of these women’s increasing dehumanization at the hands of their oppressors, he skillfully transcends cliches and sends his dancers into an abstract realm of dead delirium and inexplicable optimism. He shapes his ensemble into ethereal curves and harsh angles – constantly mirroring the women’s rare moments of joy among the systematic breaking of their spirit. In the end, with suitcases in tow, the dancers evoke an emaciated hope – some die on the spot, others "survive" and move on – perhaps into another soulless void.

Peskov’s mentor, Levin – artistic director of Same Planet Different World – also favors a journey motif and suitcase in her solo, "An Accidental Dressing." She emerges, dressed in an antique Spanish-style dress (reminiscent of a torch singer in a Latin-themed club in the 1930s) from a piece of luggage. She dances an off-kilter tango – wrapping in every fierce jerk of her head and limbs a statement about glamour and how clothing can constrict and/or encapsulate an entire era and mood.

Imagine the arresting change when Levin appears for the second section with her dress draped around her neck to reveal her undergarments. The dress becomes a sort of figurative, inverted feathery fan simultaneously exposing and hiding her naked being. The dress then grows so cumbersome, it feels like a ball and chain. And Levin – a powerful technician and dramatic actress – leaves the audience questioning where the real person is beneath the adornment as she saunters off in her underwear dragging her suitcase.

Young choreographer Tiffany Van Cleaf’s "Range" opens the show, and she clearly demonstrates a gift for quietly revelatory movement unveiled in precision ensemble work. She favors spoken text. But Van Cleaf really challenges her dancers – Cindy Brandle, Katie Calandra, Mary Chorba, Diana Garcia-Snyder, Elizabeth Lentz and herself – to deliver heartfelt monologues about the meaning of "home" while executing demanding combinations, which integrate extreme stretches and pounding, stylized jumps.

It’s as if the dancers are conjuring memories through their bodies and voices – and audiences feel like they’ve just traveled to Texas, Hawaii, Mexico and the recesses of human nostalgia.

The innovative programming continues through the opening of the second half with Paula Frasz’s "Lowering Clouds," an ominous solo for the electric Tracee Westmoreland, set to an aria (sung by Beverly Sills) from Meyerbeer’s "Robert the Devil." Throughout the piece, Westmoreland (Frasz’s "student") – dancing under a billowy white parachute – appears to be on the brink of suicide, balancing over the edge of an invisible precipice. Yet she’s strong and defiant within her shaky resolve – culminating in the overhanging "cloud" dropping on her supine body like a shroud.

Unfortunately, the last two works meander into unfocused – and unfinished – oblivion. Cindy Brandle (co-artistic director of the Chicago Moving Company and Van Cleaf’s mentor) performs with two other dancers in "Duplicate" – no doubt constructed with a deliberate sense of repetition in mind. But the meaning (perhaps having to do with our inherent connection to others or multiple aspects of ourselves) gets lost as each dancer steps purposefully forward then moves backwards ad infinitum.

Westmoreland’s ensemble piece, "Recollection," addresses the overpowering nature of sensory perceptions and the influx of memories a scent, musical chord or photograph can spark. But Westmoreland – joined by Barfoot, Leben and Tabitha Faes – never taps into a central thematic or movement theme. The dancers wander around and collide, then almost imperceptibly peter out.

Yet as a whole, "Spectrum Dances" is a necessary and refreshing addition to Chicago’s ever-inventive and multidimensional dance scene.•

"Spectrum Dances" runs August 25 and 26 at 7 p.m. at The Performance Loft, 656 W. Barry. Tickets: $12-$15. Call 773-529-8522.

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