Dance review: ARENA Dances show's mix of student and experienced dancers proves successful

  • Article by: CAROLINE PALMER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 16, 2013 - 5:07 PM

An improvisation-based piece that was also part of the program by Arena Dances was less moving.

Mathew Janczewski’s Arena Dances took the concept of a musical mashup and applied it to dance on Friday night at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis. “Pop/UGLY” combined two works (from 2010 and 2007, respectively) into something different. This interesting approach to reinventing past creations had moments of revelation and illuminated something new about each one.

Students from the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists joined the Arena dancers for “Pop/UGLY” and all danced with a buoyant spirit. Pure movement celebration collided with themes about beauty, raising questions about what it looks like from within — and outside of — societal expectations.

There was something particularly poignant about seeing so many young women in this piece. They performed with confidence and strength. In this sense Janczewski’s vision proved particularly savvy and was supported ably by Alex Berglund’s mix of sound scores featuring Alexander East, LCD Soundsystem and Morton Subotnik. Arena’s Sarah Steichen stood out for her kinetic shape shifting from stately court dancer (complete with ornate gown) to an unbound, sometimes soaring figure.

The evening also featured the premiere of “version,” an improvisation-based piece set to music performed live by Phil Fried. Improvisation as a performance form is in a category unto itself, and the ability of the artists to respond with instinctual spontaneity is key to its success. Fried showed that he is a particularly deft practitioner of this approach, but the Arena dancers (Jacob Melczer, Renee Starr, Timmy Wagner and Steichen) were not up to the task. The dancing felt weighed down by the thought processes behind it, movement choices were uninspired, and the introduction of floor mats as props came off as arbitrary.

Janczewski opened the show with the solo “Shredded Evidence/Damn this wild young heart,” another combination of two works (this time from 2010 and 2009). This particular mashup featured his own choreography along with that of Jane Shockley, and as is often the case when Janczewski performs, he showed an acute sense of constant reinvention.

Recorded narration referred to a man with amnesia, and the sharp-dressed Janczewski responded with searching mannerisms, grasping for an illusive knowledge with his hands, but coming up empty. Yet even as his persona seemed lost, Janczewski remained in control with his dancing by sliding, rolling and spinning toward newfound awareness.

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