It felt appropriate for Arena Dances to remount "Plastic Language" as a launching point for the company's 20th anniversary last weekend at the Cowles Center. The 2005 piece about the struggles and joys of dancers creating work in a studio acknowledged the toil that artistic director Matthew Janczewski and his dancers have put in over the years, as well as the payoff that hard work has produced.
Janczewski originally performed in "Plastic Language" 10 years ago, but this time he has demurred to three able dancers: Dustin Haug, Timmy Wagner and Stephen Schroeder. (Schroeder also danced in the original.) They showed off their incredible strength throughout the piece as they lifted, supported and occasionally threw one another about the stage, jumping on one another as the three bodies moved in and out of a living sculpture.
They began the piece wearing messenger bags strapped around their shoulders. They were dancers entering the rehearsal space, but they could easily have been tech start-up employees or even soldiers, exhibiting a masculine camaraderie that occasionally fell into roughhousing. At other times they acted like a muscular machine, reaching out to help one another when one of them fell behind. Two solos were also filled with tension.
Six chairs were set at the edges of the stage so the dancers could sit and observe as witnesses when they weren't dancing. They also used the chairs to create architectural forms with their bodies as extensions. In a climactic section, they placed three chairs near the front edge of the stage looking down as if over a precipice.
With the strife and angst the dancers went through, there was for them (and the audience) a huge reward. Near the end of the evening, the lighting instruments were raised out of view and the dancers rolled up the marley floor and piled the chairs into a sculpture and exited.
Then, they reappeared in cream-colored brocade jumpers, designed by Sonya Berlovitz. A curtain behind them rose and a brilliant orange light filled a back scrim, creating a gorgeous silhouette of chair sculpture and dancers. It was a moment for lighting designer Heidi Eckwall, whose work before that moment was subtle but ever-present, to shine and for Arena Dances to revel in all it has achieved.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer.