French-accented romp shows a serious side, aussi

  • Article by: CAROLINE PALMER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 24, 2012 - 10:56 AM

REVIEW: Mathew Janczewski sets a new work to French pop singer Katerine, with dancer Susie Bracken intriguing in the lead role.

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Jacob Melczer and Timmy Wagner in Mathew Janczewski's "Arena Dances."

"Les Petites Choses" is the title of a new work by choreographer Mathew Janczewski. Translated from the French, it means "the little things," and indeed, the small surprises resonated in the premiere performance by his Arena Dances on Friday night at the Cowles Center.

Set to a soundtrack featuring irrepressible French pop singer Katerine (as well as Clint Mansell and Fridge), the work established its quirky credentials early on with guest dancer Susie Bracken stumbling about wearing an electric-green bra and tights, bright-blue arm-length opera gloves, two plastic shopping bags dangling from her arms. Jacob Melczer, Renee Starr, Sarah Steichen and Timmy Wagner comprised an unwitting chorus line, bopping and twitching to the eclectic beats.

For a while it seemed Janczewski had made a fun but fluffy romp, predictable in its self-conscious silliness. But Bracken's eccentric presence transformed the work into something else entirely. It became a twisted burlesque in which she evolved from preening peacock into an almost tragic figure. Whether there was a moral to be found about the perils of excess remained a bit unclear, but "Les Petites Choses" did end up in a more substantial place than expected, with the potential for further development around Bracken's unique character.

Also on tap were three repertory selections, with the most poignant performance coming from Starr and Steichen in "Judged House" (1995). The pair had the connection of twins, supporting and wrestling with one another. In a particularly dynamic segment, the shorter Steichen lifted Starr and then sank into a high-arched back bend, the sort of athleticism-as-architecture moment Janczewski has cultivated throughout his career.

"Huddle" (2009), with its survival-of-the-fittest male bonding, and "These Yellow Sands" (2001), a high-flying piece with an epic quality, were well delivered by the company (which also included guests Gabriel Anderson and John Beasant III). Each work illustrated how ably Janczewski can instigate kinetic interactions, but, at the same time, they felt a bit distant.

Both relied upon strength and beauty -- and these traits were certainly present -- but they lacked the emotional immediacy that drove "Judged House" or Bracken's daring turn in "Les Petites Choses."

The evening also included a brief excerpt from "The Main Street Project," an evening-length work premiering in fall 2014 that will explore, among other topics, what it means to belong.

Caroline Palmer writes frequently about dance.

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