The second week in November, Southern Methodist University dancers continued to surpass my expectations, tackling an impressive and wide range of repertoire. Students pushed their emotional and physical boundaries in order to embrace the idiosyncrasies of choreographers or to reconstruct and revitalize the movement of an iconic twentieth-century ballet.
The evening began with the unpredictable discourse of Joshua Peugh in his new work PICK-UP. The dancers moved with raw athleticism and were fully committed to the simplicity of unapologetic gestures—movements like taking a partner’s t-shirt and placing it over their head or the entire cast pausing to bite the flesh of their left upper-arm. There was even a moment when a male soloist stood in a spotlight and lip-synched a frisky number. This comedic device successfully transported the audience out of an analytical frame of reference. Consequently, these ironic human instances acted as connective tissue for the piece, allowing the audience to attach themselves to fascinating moments and accumulations. The combination of beautifully executed, vigorous movement and curious scrutiny of the human condition, encouraged the audience to connect with a personal illusion rather than feeling pressured to garner some larger sense of meaning.
The dancers approached the restaging of Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies with grace and attentiveness. The paramount twentieth-century ballet, which premiered in 1937, recounted the story of a community stricken with grief after the loss of their children. Danced to the Song Cycle Kindertotenlieder (“Songs on the Death of Children”) by Gustav Mahler, it remained a masterpiece of physiological modernism.
The dancers expressed the choreographic formalities with a broad range of sentiment. Their exaggerated strain of the ballet carriage combined with definitive enunciations of gesture, displayed the distressing characteristic of despair in both a group and individual context. Instances like the repetition of vertical limbs in simple pique arabesques and port de bras extensions directed toward the heavens served to punctuate and dramatize the work. The dancers grasped the defining elements with weight and intensity, carefully balancing the historical accuracy of refined ballet technique, austerity, and a cultivated sense of musicality, to produce a transcendent rendition of Tudor’s Dark Elegies.
The program closed with an entertaining performance of Cathy Young’s Zero Cool. Originally staged for SMU professor Daniel Buracezki’s company JAZZ DANCE! in 2003, this work encompassed all the excitement, sensuality, and fancy footwork that constitutes exceptional jazz dance. Set to excerpts by jazz legend Duke Ellington, the SMU dancers brought the steps to life with their crisp movement and tasteful theatricality. The detailed choreography incorporated a variety of iconic jazz work, including various isolations, playful hip twists, and complex spatial patterns. This amalgamation of jazz was ultimately fueled by an impetus to move through the space, interact with the dancers on stage, and charm the audience.
The SMU dancers engaged in an exceptional weekend of performances, consistently delivering the complex set of physical and artistic requirements for each piece. Every piece provided the students with an opportunity to discover the depth of their dance education in performance.