Review: Prairie Wind Dancers leap poetically into new works

The Prairie Wind Dancers quite literally set poetry in motion Friday evening at their annual new works concert.

Central to the program was a collaborative work in progress, "Dangerous Curves/Breast Cancer Journeys," which paired the six-member company with Lawrence poet and breast cancer survivor Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and blues singer-songwriter Kelley Hunt.

The dancers performed the collection of pieces -- choreographed by Prairie Wind artistic director Candi Baker, herself a breast cancer survivor -- behind a gauzy screen with Mirriam-Goldberg reciting a spoken-word score. Her verse chronicled her story from the "Night Before Surgery" to being "Breastless" to then affirming "This Life Is Your Life."

Dancers in groups, pairs and alone interpreted her vulnerable, honest words: the slicing and cutting of surgery with jagged, staccato gestures; the reclaiming of life with full, confident spins and self-embraces.

Perhaps most riveting was the fourth installment, "Danger," during which Mirriam-Goldberg improvised a poem while the dancers improvised a visual composition. Neither missed a beat, and the result was stunning.

In the musical portion of "Dangerous Curves" -- performed to "Stronger Wings," an original song by Hunt -- Ellie Goudie-Averill began on stage alone, with dancers joining her one at a time from the wings. Their movements were slow, deliberate and noble. In one after another touching sign of solidarity, the dancers lifted Goudie-Averill, embraced her, bore her weight on their backs as they bent to the stage -- each act giving a literal though moving interpretation of Hunt's lyrics, "weary though you may be, you don't have to fly alone."

Overall, the evening's program followed a well-designed shape.

It began with a gleeful "Romp," choreographed for the full company by modern dance trainer Susan Warden. Above the rollicking strings of J.S. Bach, dancers encountered then fell away from one another. References to push-ups and elbow army crawls combined with mid-air swimming and leaps that gave way to crouches transformed the stage into a summer playground, and the "children" rolled away, spent, as the lights faded.

Ballet trainer Deborah Bettinger's "In the Cards" orchestrated intriguing interactions between dancers and props. With poker faces intact, four women in loose flowery dresses slithered around folding chairs and a card table above a free jazz score by Edgar Varese. Jennifer Wilson performed a solo with impressive, controlled floor work (an achievement she later topped in her self-choreographed "Knock Me a Kiss.")

Goudie-Averill set a humorous morph of polka and modern to a trio of polka tunes in "Exceptions to The Rule: Whatdeheckisdepolka?" She toyed with restricted range of motion by having dancers anchor their elbows at their waists, resulting in comic, abbreviated arm movements and hands flapping at the wrists. Cheeky expressions and the quick hop-step-close-step of polka alternated with a freer style of modern leaps and spins to paint a rich visual texture.

Perhaps the most successful completed work on the program was Warden's "Incoming," set to a crystalline a cappella choral score by Arvo Pärt with the sound of beating helicopter wings mixed in. The full company in white tunics and pants formed lines that broke apart, then surged into and through each other, like a hauntingly solemn game of Red Rover. As in other dances on the program, fear and the human response to it played out here, with dancers peeking skyward, cowering, hiding, then pairing off to hold one another up, shield one another from the mystery to come.

Throughout the program, interlude dances -- short, sweet vignettes that illustrated a single idea -- acted as appetizers between main courses. Some were more satisfying than others. "Oh Yeah," for instance, lacked the synchronicity and body its title implied.

And the evening ended on an uplifting note in Michael Ingle's "Brink." Six dancers in bright orange unitards matched the energy and pace of a driving, frenetic score by composer Philip Glass. The size of the ensemble waxed and waned as dancers entered and exited the stage, but each new entrance began a new line of motion that built to a final image of a single dancer on the verge of a leap.

The company took that leap Friday and landed solidly on its feet. Poetry in motion, indeed.

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