Friday, May 8, 2009

Dancing feat

The Youtube promo for Urbanity Dance.

I'm late with a few words - which happily can be kind ones - about Urbanity Dance, a new dance group founded and directed by Betsi Graves Akerstein, which gave its first performance ever, "Cage Free," at the BU Dance Studio last weekend. (Full disclosure: I was invited by a friend, Kate Patten Cook, who dances with them.) The troupe is loosely centered in alumni of Boston College, all of whom have a surprisingly high level of talent and training, and who under Ms. Akerstein's direction managed to sustain that high level minute-to-minute in a two-hour-plus program of their own choreography (which is no small feat).

What was even more surprising, however, was the professional sheen of the whole production. There was a panoply of smart and sexy costumes, and two very-cool set-pieces (such as the giant bird-cage below) to ooh and ah over, while the lighting (by Matt Breton) morphed constantly in close coordination with the dance, much in the mode of Nederlands Dans Theater. One left the performance in a certain awe of both Ms. Akerstein's logistical skills and the determination and dedication of her young troupe.

And the dances themselves were always energetic, resourceful and charming, even if they tended to bump repeatedly against a certain artistic ceiling. The program had a "theme" - freedom - which everyone can believe in without getting into pesky specifics, and Ms. Akerstein had decided to let many of the dancers have their own choreographic say on the subject: she developed a long initial piece, which was then followed by a series of shorter dances, each generally the length of an accompanying pop song. Given those parameters, you can probably guess at the pop-literalism that slightly limited the work; we knew we would eventually see an actual bird-cage (with an actual dancer trapped in it) and an actual bare-chested guy with a literal pair of wings, etc. (although the wings, which blinked, did look awesome). The musical selections were also what you might expect from a lot of choreographers fresh out of a liberal arts college: Sigur Rós and Sufjan Stevens figured prominently, as did Dario Marianelli (composer of such high-end chick-lit-flicks as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice).

Urbanity Dance in action. Photos by Eli Akerstein.

Still, I can't say I didn't enjoy the program (despite its over-amplification); I mean, what's not to like about large groups of pretty girls (and the occasional boy) struggling to be free of something or other? And I have to give a shout-out to my pal Katie, whose choreography for "La Belle et Le Bad Boy" and "Such Great Heights" struck me as particularly strong. Not that anyone in this line-up is a slouch. There were plenty of fine moments from Ms. Akerstein and others, as well as a striking solo from dancer Kara McCann; it's clear Urbanity Dance has in its first program already staked out a prominent piece of territory on the local dance map. Moving forward, however, I hope they can break out of a certain jazz-dance cage that "Cage Free" sometimes seemed stuck in (this is probably the artistic flip side of its laudable commitment to artistic inclusion). And more solos and duets would be nice - the choral sequences got a little repetitive, and floated along at about the same level of intensity; the sudden pairing of Jon Arpino and Michelle Costello, for instance, brought a welcome dose of conflict and something like real narrative to the goings-on. But I'm sure, given their obvious organization and vision (they even gave out a scholarship!), that artistic expansion is definitely among this troupe's plans.

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