Icelandic monsters and Dutch painter Piet Mondrian are inspirations for the two world premieres on Zenon Dance Company’s spring program, which opened Friday night at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis.

The works from choreographers Daniel Stark and Netta Yerushalmy couldn’t be more different from one another, and that’s the philosophy behind the Zenon repertory built by founder/artistic director Linda Andrews.

Stark, an associate professor at Minnesota State University Mankato, draws upon the story of the child-devouring Gryla in “Folktale Zero,” a work that explores the end of imagination in an increasingly virtual world. The fiend is never revealed, except through the slowly curling and contorted movements of Mary Ann Bradley, who finds a way to imbue her beast with a delicate beauty. What surprises most about this well-crafted, physically demanding piece is the sense of loneliness that runs throughout — and that’s its scariest aspect. Stark doesn’t need to show us anything but ourselves to make his point.

New York’s Yerushalmy isn’t out to frighten anyone with “rhythms of defamiliarization,” but some head-scratching might occur after viewing this piece. It is absolutely hilarious, but in the most deadpan way possible, thanks largely to Leslie O’Neill’s spider-like performance and Yerushalmy’s anarchic sense of humor. A bright-red unitard never seemed so funny.

This work unfolds in homage to a 1960s happening defined by seemingly random choices, but Yerushalmy knows exactly what she’s doing. The movement is awkward, the dancers flail even, and sometimes their eyes flutter as if they are malfunctioning robots. The Mondrian influence comes from the bold primary colors in his paintings. Where it all ends up doesn’t really matter — Yerushalmy is a choreographer whose investigations exist in the moment.

The evening also includes “My Quarreling Heart” (2011) by New York’s Kyle Abraham, who recently received a MacArthur “genius” grant. This work exemplifies why he deserves such praise. It is tough, uncompromising, nuanced with layer upon layer of movement influences ranging from modern dance to hip-hop. New Zenon member Alyssa Mann delivers a particularly adept interpretation of Abraham’s technique.

Danny Buraczeski’s “Ezekiel’s Wheel” (1999) wraps up the program. Kudos again to Zenon for reviving this endlessly elegant tribute to writer James Baldwin’s legacy. The dancers give this rousing call for equality the passionate performance it deserves.

 

Caroline Palmer writes about dance.