Those UWM dancers; Video update Wednesday 2/3
The creativity and dedication in the dance department at UWM has bubbled over into an ever more lively and intriguing professional dance community in Milwaukee. Whenever I can, I stop in for student dance shows to see who’s in the pipeline.
On the afternoon of Jan. 23, the department gave an in-progress, informal showing of Suniti Dernovsek’s new Always Merry and Bright and Garth Fagan’s classic From Before. Dernovsek, a 2003 UWM dance alumna, moved to Portland, Ore., in 2004. With artist David Stein, she runs a company there call Hot Little Hands. Dernovsek is here now as the first recipient of an anonymously funded grant that brings alums back to Milwaukee to create dances for current students.
In Always Merry, nine dancers hold their heads beautifully erect while their bodies alternate long, supple lines with odd tippings of shoulders and hips. They often break up into squadrons that sometimes move together and sometimes in counterpoint. Their faces remain casual and relaxed through all of this. As quirky as this 20-something-minute dance is, an era of poised calm prevails. Always Merry is a string of pearls, with perfectly formed phrases separated by pauses. It’s amusing and oddly beautiful.
Garth Fagan, the revered founder of Bucket Dance Theater (now Garth Fagan Dance, based in Rochester, N.Y.) and famous for his choreography for Broadway’s The Lion King, is a legend of modern dance. The department is celebrating Fagan, and he will be in Milwaukee to interact with UWM dancers this spring. He is the latest in a long string of high-profile guests of the department.
From Before is from 1978; shiny unitards on the 14 dancers make that vintage clear. The dance itself is completely fresh. Fagan seamlessly integrates all manner of African and Afro-Caribbean styles into a sleek variety of jazz/modern. It’s fast, exciting and complicated, as dancers must travel while moving the hips and shoulders independently. Where Dernovsek’s dance was written in block letters, as it were, with one thing clearly differentiated from the next, Fagan’s is in cursive, in fluid motion with everything connected. It’s a very difficult piece to dance, but it mustn’t look difficult.
Fagan assistant Natalie Rogers-Cropper, like Dernovsek, had been in Milwaukee teaching the dance for two intensive weeks leading up to the Jan. 23 showing. Rogers-Cropper carried on at some length not only about the skill and dedication of her student dancers, but about their savvy. She was astonished to find them ready to absorb the lead-with-the-hips way of Afro-Caribbean dance.
The UWM dancers were well situated for that, thanks to Ferne Caulker’s long-established African dance curriculum.
The dancers looked fabulous in both works, and were all the more impressive considering they’d had just two weeks to learn two big pieces. The department has a particularly strong group of men. Seven of them appeared on the 23rd; all were more than competent, and three were spectacular.
You have to wait for UWM Summerdances for Fagan’s From Before. Dernovsek’s Always Merry and Bright will be part of the Winterdances program this week, along with Ed Burgess’ Shadows, Ferne Caulker’s Gimme da Kneebone Bent, Simone Ferro’s Fingerprint and Shell Benjamin’s Every Crisis…Holds an Open Door. Burgess, Caulker and Ferro are members of the dance faculty; Benjamin is an MFA candidate.