Zenon Dance Company celebrated the opening night of its fall season on Friday, but also paused to remember Sage Cowles, who died Thursday.

“We’re in the Cowles Center for Dance, which says so much,” noted Zenon artistic director Linda Andrews during a curtain speech, adding that the arts patron championed big and small companies alike.

Zenon, a midsize troupe with a 31-year history, is committed to the sort of diverse creative vision Cowles held dear. The program opens with the world premiere of New York-based choreographer Stefanie Batten Bland’s “Caught,” a dreamlike work framing a message about environmental — and human — destruction. The dancers are trapped, as if gasping sea life, inside a set installation with a large hanging net and mounds of plastic bags that roil like ocean foam.

While the piece goes adrift in its focus sometimes, there are many instances of searing clarity, particularly as the performers break into a herky-jerky club-style dance. Mary Ann Bradley and Leslie O’Neill are particularly compelling interpreters of Batten Bland’s subtle yet potent blend of bedraggled beauty and political consciousness.

“Molten Substance,” which premiered last spring and is choreographed by Brooklyn’s luciana achugar, remains a stirring movement manifesto on women’s lives accompanied by live drumming from composer JT Bates. Tamara Ober, Sarah Steichen, Bradley and O’Neill perform the work with long hair covering their faces while they struggle through the simultaneously liberating and frustrating effort of meeting (then blowing up) societal expectations about sexuality and femininity.

Zenon is performing Danny Buraczeski’s “Ezekiel’s Wheel” (1999) for the first time and all of the dancers contribute wholeheartedly to this inspirational jazz work set to a richly textured composition by Philip Hamilton. Driven by the eloquent words of the great writer James Baldwin and the enduring legacy of the civil rights movement, the piece remains a highlight of Buraczeski’s significant career as well as newfound treasure for Zenon’s repertory.

Bradley is a marvel of vulnerable grace barely masking seething power when she performs a solo to the resolute eulogy from Baldwin’s “Another Country” (spoken on tape by the author himself). “Try to understand — try to understand. The world’s already bitter enough. We got to try to be better than the world,” he says.

I imagine that Sage Cowles — whose life reflected the spirit of these words — would agree.


Caroline Palmer writes about dance.