Review: KU dancers stage stirring 'Missa Brevis'

Choreographer Jose Limón called "Missa Brevis" his prayer for world peace. And though the 1958 work was the dancer's very specific response to the devastation of World War II, its illustration of hope and faith amid the most defeating circumstances rings universal and timeless.

Sarah Stackhouse, a former principal dancer with the Limón company and an assistant to Limón, spent six weeks at Kansas University this fall setting the work on the University Dance Company, which performed it at its Friday and Saturday evening concerts.

Limón set his dance to Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály's "Missa Brevis in Tempore Belli" (Mass in Time of War), which was performed angelically Friday by the KU Chamber Singers and an organist, under the direction of John Paul Johnson.

After a brief organ prelude, "Missa Brevis," began with a powerful, haunting image: Soloist Patrick Suzeau (dancing the role originally performed by Limón) stood rapt, observing a dense mass of male and female dancers all connected by intertwining arms, moving slowly in synchronicity. The dancers were dressed in working-class clothes: skirts, blouses and head scarves for the women, slacks and button-up shirts for the men -- all in a muted, earthy color palette. Behind them, the specter of war loomed in the projected image of a bombed-out church silhouetted against a smoky sky.

In the Qui Tollis, the second movement of the mass, Suzeau moved from passive observer to a figure who divided the group of 24 dancers and -- with arms frequently outstretched -- expressed empathy and fear. He seemed to be trying to understand how the community could be so steadfastly stoic and faithful amid such great devastation.

The Ressurexit (and the other group sections of the piece) contained electrifying spatial dynamics. Groups of dancers split off from one another, some swirling and leaping, others swinging heavy like pendulums, and still others moving through jerking, staccato arcs. In some instances, dancers lay taut and outstretched on the floor while others formed rigid mid-air lines in lifts, utilizing all dimensions of the performance space at once.

Suzeau was brilliant. From the Benedictus, when he carried one woman while dragging another across the stage, to the Agnus Dei, where he moved among the undulating company, reaching out with his arms and then wringing his hands as he tip-toed on his knees in front of the onlooking company. He seemed defeated, in his Ite Missa Est solo, where he started face down on the stage, then tried to rise, only to be bent backwards again and forced to the floor.

But he, like the others, found strength to rise, and, ultimately, the dance ended where it began: with Suzeau gazing upon a huddled mass of humanity, stalwart villagers resolved to rebuild their world.

Also on the program were three original works by KU dance faculty. Suzeau, with help from Muriel Cohan, choreographed "Ãtude." The exploration of rhythm featured 11 women and five men performing to a commissioned score by Jason Slote. The colorful animal/tie-dyed print on the dancers' unitards mimicked the complex textures and tone colors of Slote's percussive music, as did the choreography. Suzeau combined large groups of dancers that melted into smaller groups and soloists whose movements toyed with gesture, rhythm and weight.

Willie Lenoir's "Powerhouse" used the big band music of Raymond Scott, Tommy Dorsey and Dizzy Gillespie to inspire a playful romp for eight women and four men. The ensemble interspersed high kicks with full side-to-side swaying claps, taking a tour of vernacular dance forms of the '20s, '30s and '40s. The music was catchy and the movements familiar and charismatic, but the piece fell a bit short of being inspiring.

Jerel Hilding choreographed a sprightly ballet called "Whimsical Suite" to the Waltz, Polka, Sentimental Romance and Finale of Dmitri Shostakovich's "Ballet Suite #2." Ten women and four men portrayed the moods of each movement: light, witty, sentimental and energetic.

The collection of dances in times of war and peace made for an eclectic evening, and the company's restaging of "Missa Brevis," made possible by a prestigious grant from the National College Choreography Initiative, was a privilege to watch.

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