Dancers participate in cultural exchange Performance featuring Ellen Smith '05 fuses Cuban and modern influences

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Alexandra Hay

For the Dance Company of Middlebury’s performances Friday and Saturday nights, April 22 and 23, the entire Dance Theatre was rotated 90 degrees and risers of chairs wrapped around two sides of the stage. With the traditional black velvet wings and back curtain replaced with a white screen and open space, the intimate venue became both lofty and more personal.

Under the direction of Penny Campbell, lecturer in Dance, the Company had hoped to go to Cuba over spring break and continue the cultural exchange begun in 2003 when the group was lucky enough to get a license and travel to Cuba for the first time. Unfortunately, the government recently became more restrictive in granting travel licenses to Cuba and it was impossible for the Company to travel to Cuba. However, Campbell has managed to travel to Cuba several times this past year with a special license and the cultural exchange is alive in the form of Cuban composer Raúl Guará who collaborated with Campbell and local musician Michael Chorney to create the music for the second half of the performance. When Campbell first heard the music, she was worried about meeting the challenge of creating a dance to music which was so “big and rhythmic and energized.”

Three projectors flashed images of Cuba across two walls of the theatre during the piece entitled “InterVaDos” that ran throughout the second half of the show. The piece was orchestrated by Campbell with choreography stemming from improvisation work with the dancers.

As all eight members of the company spilled onstage and rhythmic Cuban drumming filled the air against a background of images of Havana, the theatre felt like a big party in the street. With costumes all in red and black liberally sprinkled with sequins, the Latin dance influence was strong. At times the modern dance tradition rooted so strongly in the Dance Department and handed down from generations of white American movement fought with the Cuban music for dominance. Yet the incongruous juxtaposition reflected the struggles of cultural exchange, not the incompatibility of the two.

In her solo, Hannah Giles ’06 was particularly striking in her ability to mesh traditional modern dance and the sensual Cuban music. She seemed particularly aware of her skin and the edges of her movement in a way that blended beautifully with the sultry music. The dance was especially powerful when the traditional Cuban social dance merged with modern dance and interlocked pairs moved around the floor in dips and twirls that evoked the power of the tango in a softer, more painful echo.

The first half of the show consisted of shorter pieces choreographed by students and showcasing the senior work of Ellen Smith ’05.

“That’s Kind of How I Saw it the First Time,” a duet by Becca Marcus ’07 and Alex Rhinehart ’05, started off the show as the two wove text and movement into an exploration of personal relationships. Against the tender string music the lack of chemistry between the two dancers was quite striking, adding an odd layer of distance and isolation to their tentative yet needy attempts to connect. Both dancers were blindfolded, a constant reminder of each person’s enclosure within their own world, unable to see and reaching blindly for connection. The text contributions – snippets of conversation from any intimate relationship — were sometimes delivered in rich, real tones and sometimes seemed slightly strained and presentational, adding another layer to the disconnection between the two. The real treat was the partnering skills of the two dancers as Marcus twined in and around Rhinehart’s body with tricky maneuvers coming off effortlessly.

The second dance was a frenetic piece performed by five dancers and choreographed by Smith. Dancing to funky R&B music, the five performers seemed constantly in motion while the few pauses were never quite satisfying. If the duet was an intimate conversation of the heart and soul, “I See London, I See France (or How to Love Your Neighbor)” was a ride on the New York Metro at rush hour. Amidst all the flurry, short sections of unison were particularly powerful and satisfying. Smith made good use of the new performance space as her dancers slammed their bodies against the back wall or danced with their shadows in the very corners. At certain points in the piece, dancers would collect like driftwood, lying or leaning against the back wall as the action continued center stage, casualties of life discarded by the hustle and bustle. Although the dance felt too self-consciously aware of itself as a piece of choreography with obvious shifts from unison to a round and splitting off into smaller duets or trios, the piece promises of great things to come as Smith relaxes into her real talent as a choreographer and develops her distinctive style.

A solo by Smith came next in the program. With her body trussed up in a blue and white polka dot bathing suit with skirt reminiscent of the ’50s, she looked like an awkward teenager, alternatively coy and eager or shy and uncomfortable. The swimming theme extended to her movements as she glided on her back across the floor or seemed to dive into the water and splash around. Her peculiar combination of complete control and flailing arms and legs was fascinating to watch as she repeatedly threw herself to the floor and contorted with ease and grace. The music, composed by Vermont musician Michael Chorney, fit seamlessly into the nervous edges and easy flow of the dance.

Recent graduates Julia Basso ‘04.5 and Kate Stamper ‘04.5 performed a duet from their senior work last fall. The two dancers playfully explored each other as the tender duet moved through periods of melancholy separation and joyful reunion. The real connection and intimacy between the two offered a surprising counterpoint to the blindfolded attempts of the first duet.