Merged: A Dance Concert, taking place at the Geva Nextstage, features the work of two locally based but nationally renowned choreographers. Heather Roffe is an assistant professor of dance at Nazareth College, while James Hansen is an associate professor and the undergraduate program director of the Department of Dance at The College at Brockport. This show again underlined what, to me, is the story of Fringe 2013: our local artistic and creative talent was given this opportunity to shine, and again and again they absolutely nailed it. While not all the dances in Merged were of consistent quality, it was still a strong showcase for two members of our local dance scene.
I was flat-out amazed by Roffe. Based solely on the first piece, "Text Me," you could classify her style as playful and witty. When the second piece, "Pedestals and Penchants," started, I was convinced that it was the work of the second choreographer on the bill. It wasn't. Roffe again, this time with a more classically influenced set of movements and refined sensibility. It became clear that her dance vocabulary and point of view is impossible to easily categorize. Her "(The AnAtomic Weight of FeAr)" suite is nothing short of epic, while "Manifest Gesture" is a smaller, more intimate duet between two partners that clearly communicated the tricky push-pull of a relationship. Throughout it all Roffe used her dancers' bodies in ways that seemed new and fresh, yet it was still accessible and, at times, even poignant. An amazing talent right in our backyard.
If I have one criticism of Roffe's pieces, it is that the dancers were sometimes inconsistent. There were times where they were clearly supposed to be moving in unison, and one or two were slightly off. Minor quibble given the talent that was on display on that stage. But when the work is at this level, you want to make sure every part of it delivers on its fullest potential impact.
There's a showbiz saying to never work with animals or children. They always show you up. Choreographers might want to add Roffe to that list, because her work set the bar extremely high in Merged. And after his first two pieces, I felt Hansen was coming up short. The first, a ballet-influenced solo by Sandra Lacy, had some interesting moments, but I wasn't clear if it was intentionally being played for laughs or not. (Nor were several members of the audience - there were actual fits of nervous laughter.) And I wanted to yank that distractingly noisy pearl necklace right off Lacy's neck. The second, "Allemende," didn't make much of an impression at all, especially coming right after Roffe's beguiling "FeAr" pieces.
But then came Hansen's final piece, "Stag Line," and I was sold. Between this number and the earlier solo from "Tryst," it is clear that Hansen has a fascination with the vagaries of suburban life. He explores that masterfully here, as five dancers -- two women, three men -- interact in various permutations, revealing hopes, expectations, and the crushing disappointments of reality through some very exciting dancing. I was captivated by this number (smart music choices, too) -- until the last third, when the ladies exited the stage and the male dancers commenced in a repetitive, ponderous bit that lacked the visceral energy found in the first 2/3 of the number. In gymnastics parlance, he blew the dismount. It was a shame. Especially because, when I think back on the brilliance I saw on display in the first chunk of "Stag Line," I realize that I want to see it again, right this very second.
(Merged: A Dance Concert also takes place Saturday, September 28, noon at Geva Nextstage. Tickets cost $16.)
Dangerous Signs at Little Theatre 1 was a performance by the NTID Masquer's Drama Club, an exploration of deaf poetry. I found it to be largely fascinating, and just a touch frustrating. I appreciated getting this window into what was, for me, a completely new cultural experience. Poetry for the hearing can take on many forms, and that's true for the deaf community as well. Sometimes the poems are mimed out, the words interpreted through actions as opposed to literal translations. Sometimes they're spelled out using hand signs. Sometimes they're told through an alphabet format that, frankly, I still didn't fully grasp by the end of the show.
The troupe performed a variety of works, ranging from classic poems by Langston Hughes and Alfred Tennyson to more contemporary works and even a few originals by the Masquerers themselves. Highlights for me were the inventive interpretation of the Gnarls Barkley song "Crazy" and a piece in which the members of the group conveyed their own experiences with bullying.
My frustrations stemmed from the fact that the performance seemed to jump rapidly from topic to topic with the barest of threadlines. And every time an interesting concept was introduced -- like, say, the idea of using provided balloons so that hearing members of the audience could understand how the deaf community feels the vibrations of music -- it was quickly abandoned. The show had an almost frenetic feeling at times, and a core of three or four hammier members of the group kept dominating the stage to the point where I actually started to feel bad for the other members of the club.
I'm not making a joke when I say that I was torn at Bending and Breaking at ESM's Sproull Atrium. There were times when I was engaged with the proceedings, and others where I literally had to force myself to pay attention. The idea behind this performance was intriguing: jazz group Bending and Breaking, featuring current and former Eastman School of Music students, collaborating with various local dancers. Since Bending and Breaking's songs are largely improvised, this presented a unique challenge to the dancers, who had to choreograph moves to music that would sound radically different each time it was played.
The dancing was, for the most part, successful. That's even more impressive given that the dancers ranged from professionals (four members of the Rochester City Ballet) to a student group (#ProjectMovement Dance Company, based at Nazareth) to ESM instrumental students who presumably have a personal background in dance. There was only one number where the dancing left me cold (that would be "Circles," which I thought was a dud across the board), and the rest showcased a nice mix of styles and some very impressive moves from all involved.
My main issues with the performance came from the music. Your enjoyment of Bending and Breaking, both the band and this show, will depend almost entirely on your feelings on improvisational jazz. I personally struggle with it. I understand that I'm supposed to like it. That it's a sign of being cultured, or an intellectual. But I find that more often than not, it borders on masturbatory. "Let me sit up here and diddle around with my instrument for five minutes - sometimes deliberately out of tune, or out of synch - so you can see how amazing I am." Eh.
So, I'm not naturally inclined to like this kind of music, and when you add in the fact that several of the songs were mid-tempo or slower, after 10 p.m. on Friday after a VERY long week -- it all got quite dull in parts.
Conversely, one of the better segments was the entirely improvised song by the band and Nazareth dancers Glo Gambino and BreMelino. All parties did a great job here, as the dancers played off each other gamely while the band blessedly found a pulse. That continued into the next number, the highlight of the set, "A View from Above," featuring Chris Collins from Rochester City Ballet. This was a great song and a spectacular job from Collins, who performed some amazing feats in literally just his underwear. That takes guts.