Seeing it for yourself would let you know, in a far more immediate way, that something oh-so-nice is going on up there, and that Atlanta and Georgia have only begun to reap the benefits of having a great new dance program in our midst. It's a program that—although it's just five years old—is well on course to gaining regional and even national prominence.
High on that list of nifty accomplishments of the fledgling program is the receipt of an NEA grant to produce D-Man in the Waters, a signature work by renowned choreographer Bill T. Jones. It's the opening piece in this weekend's program, and it's a stunner. There are some choreographic works that make you want to dance: D-Man takes that inspiration one step further. It made me want to join a dance company. The work was written at a time when one of Jones' company dancers, Demian Acquavella, nicknamed D-Man, was suffering from AIDS. It's a celebratory, affectionate work about the company defiantly remaining joyful, loving, productive, and cohesive in the face of oppression and tragedy. I loved the spirit of humor, energy and conviviality that the KSU company brought to the stage. Dancers were confident, muscular, robust, and joyful: I thought it was the perfect match of piece to company.
The movement remained strong throughout the evening's program of four works. To say that dancing in a piece by choreographer and KSU artist-in-residence Lauri Stallings looks hard is something of an understatement. Her work is obviously not just physically challenging—she's an artist who's unafraid to utilize every last little joint and movable part of a dancer's body—but it must be artistically challenging for a dancer, as well: Her movements are full of odd, idiosyncratic impulses and strange, unfathomable intentions which must flash through the dancer's body like lightning, or else they're sustained and explored with a Zen-like intensity and slowness during adagio segments, guided by some secret, interior sensibility. When her pieces are performed well, the dancers can almost seem like a different type of human being: they're somewhat familiar, somewhat like us, but their motivations, their level of understanding, their mode of movement, seem otherworldly. And an ensemble is often called upon to explore these things synchronously, matching intent and movement with each other. I didn't get a chance to ask, but I suspect the answer would be: Hell, yes, it's hard. I thought all the dancers handled the challenge beautifully. The work included live music—which I always love in dance work—and it was especially well employed here, with dancers and musicians interacting. There was an object-related dance with long elastic bands. The object itself, by some strange logic, elicited stretching movements from the dancers that held it: a sense of elasticity resonated and echoed in the body. It was all very well done. If I hadn't known that these were students on stage, I wouldn't have known that these were students on stage.
The program took on a more somber and menacing tone in the second half of the program. Faculty member Sandra Parks examined themes of mass violence, torture, and imprisonment in a work dedicated to the victims of the Nanking Massacre. The piece involved an impressive variety of movement: For the women, this included ballet slippers and dancing en pointe, even one segment of dancing with one foot on point, the other not. (Surely faculty members must have sat around at a meeting and said, “Now how can we make this really hard?”)
Department head Ivan Pulinkala's final piece “Cocoon” was a sci-fi tinged, surreal, theatrical work in which Atlanta Ballet dancer John Welker emerged from a creepy wire cocoon designed by KSU professor Ming Chen. Insect imagery and themes of consumption, birth, transformation survival, predation were made even scarier, almost apocalyptic, by the dramatic and unexpected entrance of a queen. Yikes.
It was a very strong program, and I only have one tangential complaint. The Kennesaw campus needs better signage and clear parking so that first-time visitors feel welcome. I arrived way early, and it was a good thing: I spent at least 30 minutes dizzying myself and spoiling my mood in the campus' confusing jumble of roads and roundabouts. Signs are small and infrequent and hard to read at night. And I know this is no one's fault (but it's never stopped me from complaining before): a lightbulb burned out as I was walking up an already pretty dark path to an already obscure theater building. I wasn't sure I was at the right place until I was actually in it. I was glad to hear that Kennessaw will be building a new dance facility in 2011. The Stillwell Theater in which the performance took place was nice, but didn't match the quality of the program. A more welcoming theater with clear signs, accessible parking, and better lighting will be the final piece to put in place for a great department.
All complaining aside, we're lucky to have a neat new dance department in the area that's obviously going to be churning out some great dancers and smart artists for our benefit. Go take a peek at what's happening so you'll have a sense of what's to come.
The Kennesaw State University Department of Theatre, Performance Studies & Dance will present D-Man in the Waters November 18-20 at 8 p.m. in the Howard Logan Stillwell Theater. For more information, visit KSU's website.
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