Imagine gazing into a large empty space, quiet and cool. A couple dozen lampshades hang over the top at varying heights, but they remain dark for now. Your dreams start playing in patches here and there in the space. Illumination reveals parts of bodies and clothing, just as dreams come in bits and pieces. Lips move, and soon we hear words and phrases, and they seem half-heard as in dreams, those memories of words spoken to one by his mother, other family members, friends or lovers. Comments of life-changing consequence that only come back in sleep and memory haunt and texture our waking lives. But how could any outside force play back these lost echoes to us with such veracity?
Be Still, My Heart, the new long (55 minutes) single work by the Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company (KDHDC), Hamrick, producing artistic director and choreographer, begins in this instantly engaging manner. The company dancers labor in emotional fields of love, desire, rejection, fear, curiosity, despair, whimsy, dread and satisfaction. The choreography leads into the main sequence of the performance, marked by the company’s trademark athleticism and extended and lyrical passages of varied ensemble combinations — duets, solos, trios and the full group of eight dancers.
The lights fade up as in the movies. Here are several scenes of people in groups interacting — sometimes in brief, stationary gestures; sometimes with light, brief movements; sometimes with actual conversations, including not a few witticisms and jokes.
Stephen Pruitt designed the lighting that is critical to allowing this expression. The lampshade design element overhead creates just a bare hint of a domestic setting, but one flexible enough to give freedom to the dancers. Handheld lighting units bring intense focus to body parts. The complex lighting design altogether works with the dancers, not against them, as does the loose, neutral, comfortable-looking costumes by Laura Noose.
The musical score by Drew Silverman follows the dancers with much improvisational skill. As Hamrick wrote in her choreographer’s notes, “It was important to me that the music/sounds actually accompany the dancers, like a movie score. This gives a lot of freedom to the dancers and I hope makes the experience feel spontaneous and real for everyone here.” Silverman, who is also the percussionist for the band Shy Beast, is adept at improvisation, nowhere more effectively than when a sitting line of dancers wiggle their toes accompanied by Silverman’s tinkling chimes. Overhead soundtracks of movie and other music contribute in other ways: the most hilarious moments burst upon us when the dancers take turns closely lip-syncing the lyrics of a 1930s torch song playing overhead.
The company has formed a cohesive group after a period of key retirements and departures. The committed atmosphere and positive vibe of the dancers suggest a group that sees KDHDC as the pinnacle of their collective careers. Especially indicative of this are the lock-tight unison passages that launch from subtle and imperceptible cueing. The floor work is smooth and never clunky, and much work initiates from the core. Among other results, this means that bodies seem to rise from the floor without assistance from the upper trunk, leaving the arms free to form shapes and gestures and to shift balance, at times explosively. Movement sequences have the flying quality audiences love and also more subtle down-up-down kinetic rhythms. Micromovements — hand gestures, eye-winks, toe wiggles, and the like — appeared a couple of years ago in the company as accents thrown in largely for humor. Now, they have developed into sequences that drive through the show and tie into other thematic features, such as the repeated mysterious play with scarves. What was that all about?
All the company members are standouts. D. Poet Powell has height and strength, and those qualities inevitably seem to anchor the strenuous movement passages, which he nevertheless performs smoothly, always making it seem easy. Veronica De Witt shows virtuosic skill and great expressiveness in the theatrical bits, exuding a boldness that sustains her and makes her stand out. Alyson Dolan’s cool mastery of movement drives everything on stage, but she may be remembered most for her spoken line: “No, you snap out of it!” The multi-talented Marieclaire Glaeser excels equally in strong, elevated movement and detailed small gestures of nuanced emotionality.
Lisa Kobdish lives in perfected movement technique, and she performs harmoniously with all the diverse energies in the company. Carissa Topham and Cara Cook are the closest to a physical match in the group, but they perform unselfconsciously in support of the whole.
Jessica Boone perfects her share of the choreography and seems to own every gesture and movement, including the over-the-top lip-syncing early in the piece. She is a master of all the diverse emotional tones of Be Still, My Heart, chameleonic, yet tender in bestowing the blessings of the choreographic art of Hamrick.
The trio among Powell, Kobdish, and De Witt stands out in this long and diverse dance, and it bids fair to live in memory, at least in this reviewer’s. The dance of three takes its time and proceeds kaleidoscopically through the emotional states addressed by the piece. It doesn’t forget whimsy: the three bounce Kobdish out of it into a Yoga headstand, leaving her in it while the remaining two move across the space into a self-absorbed duet, ignoring/forgetting Kobdish. It is a laughing joy in memory.
The end of the performance is seemingly a return to dread, taking place in a circle of light stage center. Glaeser and Boone enter it fearfully, address each other with their eyes, and engage in a brief series of turnings and very gentle touchings. They exit the circle separately and light fades down. The section gives us, peculiarly, a very satisfying ending to the suite of mature emotional portraits that comprise Be Still, My Heart.
Be Still, My Heart ran December 6 through 9, 2018, at the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center.
Feature photo: NowPlayingAustin.com