Monday, June 1, 2009

For the Love of Dog: Dance Times Square Unleashes its Inner Animal

Melanie LaPatin and Tony Meredith, sure know how to throw a party. They’ve had a lot of practice. The oft-crowned championship Latin and Ballroom dance pair, currently So You Think You Can Dance contributing choreographers, have been doing just that with their students and fellow teachers each Spring and Fall almost since they founded the Dance Times Square social and competitive studio eight years ago. These showcases, produced by LaPatin with Administrative ProducerBronwen Carson, have taken on the added mission of support of charitable causes since last October’s fete to benefit the Helen Sawaya Fund for breast cancer survivors.

Each production features a theme of its own. DTS titled its May 11 event Ballroom Unleashed, in honor of Angel On A Leash, the evening’s beneficiary.  The showcase and a red carpet pre-show reception took place at the Danny Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College. Angel On A Leash, a Westminster Kennel Club charity, promotes work with therapy dogs in crisis intervention, rehabilitation, hospice, extended care, health care and correctional facilities and schools. 

(l to r below) Sheryl Shaker (Executive Director) and David Frei (Founder and CEO) of Angel On A Leash with Melanie LaPatin of Dance Times Square
LaPatin and Meredith used this connection as inspiration for dancing that explored the animal instincts that lie within student and professional dancers. Guest dancers and choreographers, who included the Parsons Dance Company in the person of Miguel Quinones; Anya Garnis and Pasha Kovalev, Sabra Johnson and Twitch from So You Think You Can Dance, Mark Stuart Eckstein Dance Theatre, and Metropolitan Opera diva Aprile Millo, brought their own. The diversity and quality of guest artists spiced the program and made for a highly intriguing evening in the theater.
But diversity and quality did not end with the guest artists. In a curtain speech at the top of the show LaPatin made it clear that the students performing in the show ranged in experience from near beginners to polished performers. Differences in technical level become readily apparent. But the quality of the choreography, mostly credited to LaPatin and Meredith, and the cleverness of the programming, with LaPatin as director, turned what could easily have been a deficit into an asset.
Dance Times Square makes a convincing case that almost anyone can dance with remarkable confidence and a sense of style, provided that the dancemaker tailors partnership and choreography to the ability and commitment of the dancers present. Almost invariably these pas de deux pair a student with a professional. But for me one of the more enjoyable moments over the long and winding course of the evening came in the form of a group a six women of various ages, shapes and sizes strutting their curves to “Jungle Boogie.” 
(l to r above) Mark Stuart Eckstein and Adelani Malia: contemporary jazz with benefits

While I acknowledge that such a display might not appeal to every dancegoer, the program offers up the kind of variety and pacing that virtually guarantees something appealing, entertaining, and surprising for each member of the audience. For me these came just as often in the form of student/pro duets of rhumba, samba, quickstep, tango, paso doble and jive as they did in the frequent delights of the guest artists.

The latter included several dancers from past seasons of SYTYCD. Sabra Johnson, who, at the end of season 3, became the first female winner, danced a soulful contemporary solo, while her co-competitors Anya and Pasha showed finesse in a sizzling tango. Twitch, from season 4, freestyled his way through a number in each half of the program, combining b-boy techniques and styles with fluid ease. Most of the younger half of the audience joined the teenage girls sitting next to me in wooting each time he took the stage.

Two of the other guests deserve special attention. About one third of the way through the 17 events on the first half of the program, 9 dancers from Company C Dance Club of Toledo, Ohio, took the stage with painted faces.  Over the next three minutes, they executed the well-crafted contemporary jazz styled choreography of Cassie Dzienny with a ferocity, fearlessness and crispness of attack and execution that made them resemble an entire troupe of nascent Louise Lecavalier’s
Dzienny’s designs often broke the group into three trios with sophisticated variations in shape, level – from splits on the floor to explosive leaps – and tempo to create and maintain a riveting dynamic tension.  Only when I encountered them in the lobby at intermission did I come to realize that this powerful ensemble consisted of tween and teen girls, the youngest of whom, they told me, hadn’t yet turned 10.  Woe to the respectable cha cha couple who had to follow them in one of the evening’s few programming faux pas. The act one charity appeal that followed the cha cha would have been better placed here instead.
The first half concluded with Miguel Quinones fine performance of David Parson’s signature solo “Caught,” with it’s man-in-space stage effects born of leaps and jumps frozen in strobe light flashes accompanied by Robert Fripp’s atmospheric electronic score.  I have seen this piece a score of times if I’ve seen it once, performed most frequently by its creator, but also by half a dozen other male and female interpreters. I found myself both surprised and moved by the standing ovation that still, 25 years on, greets its introduction to what I took to be a new audience. Quinones, to my mind, gets more out of the role than any other performer since the choreographer himself.
(above)Tony Meredith and Melanie LaPatin with the cast of "Ballroom Unleashed"

And if the DTS audience came away more, well, “enlightened” after an encounter with this contemporary classic, I found lessons among the 31 segments of the Ballroom Unleashed extravaganza that the contemporary concert dance world, particularly its “downtown” branch, might do well to observe.  For one thing, without any nudity whatsoever, these dancers and choreographers managed to convey a warm and unabashed sexuality, and more to the point perhaps, sensuality that made many of their more politically erotic modern dance peers look paradoxically puritanical by comparison.

For all their own formal clichés – the ending with man on the floor as the woman walks off and leaves him representing only the most oft repeated in this concert – the DTS artists seemed to accept both their bodies and their own desires without angst or apology. This made flirtation, seduction, infatuation, romance and yes, sex, look attractive and fun; like something you might like to do instead of something you might like to think or make a statement about doing. And while the ritualized relationship violence that seemed to percolate through the evening’s very first three pieces gave me pause, it did not reprise throughout the remainder of the program. Moreover, if brevity can be considered the soul of wit, the program leathered its sole with a refreshing amount of wit. Once or twice, a piece wore out its welcome. Even then, it would go on for an extra minute or two, not a minute or ten.
I didn’t get to stick around for the “after party,” back at the studio, which encourages the audience, I gather, to supply its physical rejoinder to the onstage cavorting. But Dance Times Square seems committed to the idea that everyone should come (and dance) as they are while raising money for noble causes. Who knew that doing good could be so sexy and so much fun?
Photos by Lauren Duque.

This post produced in cooperation with Tonya Plank of Swan Lake Samba Girl

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