Thursday, February 25, 2010

The women of Urbanity Dance.

It's only sophomore year for Betsi Graves Akerstein's Urbanity Dance, but the troupe looks stronger than it has any right to, with more dancers, more fans (the performance I saw nearly sold out) and more artistic ambition than companies twice (or gosh, even three times!) its tender age. Already Urbanity is commissioning new musical work, toying with high technology, and making innovations in its dance development process. But I'm afraid the company's burgeoning ambitions don't always bear artistic fruit - at least not this time around; Akerstein and her dancers are pushing the conceptual limits of what their art can be, but to communicate their fresh ideas they're too often sticking with the dated language of jazz dance, and a collective approach that guarantees them a broad appeal, but limits their interpretive depth.

Of course it's a bit ridiculous to expect a fledgling troupe to begin immediately competing with the likes of, say, Nederlands Dans Theater. And certainly having broad appeal isn't exactly a bad place to be. Urbanity's sophomore year hardly qualifies as a slump. Still, it would have been nice to see some steps forward (even baby steps) from the company's debut. And frankly, the troupe's logistical prowess produces such a polished effect (there were dozens of costumes, lighting effects, and even a giant projection of computer graphics this time around) that high (perhaps unrealistically high) artistic expectations almost inevitably ensue.

Still, nothing in the concert dragged, and the pieces moved uphill in quality (always a good sign). Big Red Door, a collaborative venture between Graves Akerstein and her dancers, had its moments - particularly in a brief, struggling duet for Jon Arpino and Becky Anderson - but these didn't amount to all that much in the end. Urbanity has a weakness for earnest, rather broad vignettes revolving around obvious symbols (last year's concert featured a girl-sized cage; this year we got the eponymous "big red door," above left). At first I didn't really want to think too hard about what, exactly, that "big red door" might literally refer to - but by the end of the dance, with its many rather generic movements, the symbol seemed so generalized that I didn't much care what it might refer to. The good news was that Big Red Door featured two male dancers (Arpino and Theo Martinez) as strong as the many women who form the core (and corps) of Urbanity, and whenever they were around, the piece had some real kick.

Which was more than you could say for Little Blue Dot (above), an ambitious attempt to say something or other - I'm not sure what - about dance and navigation via the Global Positioning System. Oddly enough, the original music commissioned for the work - composed by the talented Mu-Xuan Lin after the choreography was set - proved quite intriguing; it was the dance itself that was abstractly inert.

Luckily the troupe seemed to double down after this elaborate misfire. Red Smoke Rises, by Michelle Chassé, took its Elmer Bernstein score just about where we thought it would, but Urbanity's jazz-dancy aesthetic slid into Bernstein's brass like a hot hand into a long, slinky glove, and the piece - lit in lurid, neon red - was undeniably fun. Better still was KK Apple's Big White Moon, a genuinely haunting meditation on the loss of youth that included several motifs of innocence - including slo-mo versions of happy, heedless running - that were unexpectedly poignant. This piece deserves a place in Urbanity's "repertory," if that's what they're building.

The final dance on the program, Green Grass Grows (again by Graves Akerstein) summed up, it seemed to me, both this promising troupe's strengths and current limits. Set to music from "The Knee Plays," the minimalist divertissements scattered through Philip Glass's epic Einstein on the Beach (and featuring vocalists simply counting to eight over and over), Grass featured not just a large company but also many blocks of literal turf. The dance played out as something like Busby-Berkeley-does-Buddhism, but actually, that's a pretty interesting thing to attempt, and you had to admire both Graves Akerstein's choreographic skill as well as her guts for trying to make sense of this notoriously obscure stretch of chant (which still puzzled plenty of people in the audience). The only trouble with the piece was that the Urbanities (the Urbanites?) didn't yet have the clean precision that minimalism really requires. But like its subject matter - and this appealing troupe - this dance can only grow over time.