By leaps and bounds

Prairie Wind Dancers stretch imaginations, skills at New Works Concert

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Once a year, the Lawrence Arts Center stage becomes fertile ground for experimentation for the Prairie Wind Dancers.

Area choreographers create works that stretch the dancers' imaginations and skills, and the diverse offerings are combined for the New Works Concert. This year's performances will be at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Arts Center, 940 N.H.


Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

The Prairie Wind Dancers will present their New Works Concert Friday and Saturday at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H. Rehearsing recently, from left, are dancers Damian Houston, Jennifer Wilson, Sarah Grunwaldt, in background, choreographer Susan Warden, Mary Shahrokhi and Kimber Andrews.

Some of the dances may only be performed two or three times after their debut. Others are folded into the company's repertory for years.

"We like to push ourselves to discover new things to then feed into what we take on tour," said Candi Baker, artistic director and founder of the Prairie Wind Dancers who has choreographed two pieces for the show. "I think the words versatile and diverse have been applied to us. I think that's one of the things you see in this concert."

The program sweeps broadly through the modern tradition, stopping to explore the world of shadow, the duality of womanhood, the magic and mystery of the ocean, the play of birds in nature, and the restrictions set by boundaries.

One of Baker's numbers, "Moment," examines the concept of being "in" a particular place in time. It begins with the five-member company onstage, rehearsing a phrase. From there, solos pull out of the group to form mini moments. The only accompaniment is spoken word, not music.

"I love speaking in movement," Baker said. "Movement has its own internal rhythm that doesn't necessarily follow a musical rhythm."

Pushing boundaries

Baker's other work, "Sea Joy," might seem a little out-of-character for a landlocked dance company. But Baker is moved by the rhythms of the ocean; she lived next to the Pacific for 20 years.

The piece is set to a song of the same name by "earth music" composer and musician Paul Winter, with whom Baker became acquainted through the company's involvement with the PrairieFest in Arkansas City

"I have this passion for the ocean," Baker said. "I came across this CD of Paul Winters.' It inspired me."

What: Prairie Wind Dancers' New Works ConcertWhen: 8 p.m. Friday and SaturdayWhere: Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.Tickets: $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors

The most challenging dance on the program was created by Susan Warden, the company's artistic consultant and modern dance trainer. The piece sends the dancers through technically difficult and complex phrases and patterns that are constantly shifting. Warden was founder and artistic director of the Susan Warden Dancers and has won several choreography awards. She has created works for many companies, including the Kansas City Ballet and aha! dance theatre.

Michelle Brown, a former Prairie Wind Dancer who now dances for aha!, has contributed a new work that is elegant yet humorous. She built the number after observing birds perched on wires and flying.

"The piece builds from kind of a quiet day to a very breezy day. The dancers kind of capture the movement of birds without being birds," Baker said.

Arts Center ballet director Deborah Bettinger, a former Prairie Wind Dancer, has created a series of duets and solos for the concert. In one piece, J. Damian Houston and Jennifer Wilson pair up behind a covered frame to explore the world of shadow. Wilson also performs a playful, jazzy solo by Bettinger. Sarah Grunwaldt and Kimber Andrews explore two faces of women, and Mary Shahrokhi enacts Bettinger's "My Funny Valentine."

Andrews, who serves as artistic director for Prairie Wind Dancers 2, a six-member apprentice company composed of dancers still in college, has choreographed a high-energy piece that opens with two groups contained by boundaries. It goes on to explore the idea of physical and implied boundaries and what happens when they're crossed.

The next level

Baker hopes the New Works Concert will be the beginning of a growth period for the company, which is now on the touring rosters of the Kansas Arts Commission, Kansas City Young Audiences, the Missouri Arts Council and Arts Midwest, which covers a 10-state area. She'd like to add a few new dancers to the company that was founded in 1987.

"Next year, we will be touring to Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri," Baker said. "We are really pushing out.

"We've been on the Arts Commission roster for a long time, and we now have an established reputation that allowed us to be picked up by Arts Midwest. Two years ago, we made this commitment to full time. Before that we were a good company, but we always had one or two students, and we were always working around people's schedules. I think the level of our work has jumped. ... I think our work is really exciting now."