In the studio with 3rd Ave. Dance Co.
'Love Letters' shows for its final weekend

Lisa Bodwalk, center, director of the Third Ave. Dance Co., heads up the number "Richman's Frug” during dress rehearsal for the dance company’s annual recital. The title for this year’s show is “Love Letters,” and it takes place Friday and Saturday night in the Smiley Auditorium./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

by Jules Masterjohn

To be invited behind the scenes of any creative endeavor is a journey into an artist’s mind. From this privileged position, the nuances of creativity are revealed and demystified. This is not to say there isn’t magic in the making of a painting or the creation of a dance piece. What is revealed behind the studio doors is the hard work, passion and vision that gives birth to any soulful artwork. As someone intrigued by the workings of creative minds and bodies, it was a captivating pleasure to attend two “open studios” hosted by the 3rd Ave. Dance Co. During the studios, company members and their guest choreographers were involved in alchemy: the transformation of a choreographer’s vision, through the addition of dancers’ kinesthetic, emotional and intellectual energies. It all swirled together to form an original piece of dance.

Earlier this summer, an open studio followed the company’s final rehearsal of “In the Groove,” a sassy jazz piece by Sandi Scheuber, a California-based choreographer. Scheuber spent a mere 11 hours over a weekend with dancers Lisa Bodwalk, Kristen Brewer, Sadie Carhart, Suzy DiSanto, Bridget Hendrix and Angela LaBorde, in intensive rehearsal sessions. The process of having a choreographer’s vision “set” on dancers is demanding, engaging and rewarding work. During a break in the practice, Bodwalk offered to her fellow dancers, “This is really challenging with so many exits and entrances … it is such an adjustment from the practice in the studio to the rehearsal on the stage. There is such a difference between learning the movement and, finally, feeling the movement.” At one point during the open studio, Scheuber commented to the audience, “This is the first time that I have seen the dancers smiling and laughing.”

No one in the audience of the company’s current show, “Love Letters” would guess that the “In the Groove” dancers weren’t always having a great time. The music is infectious and the dancers rock, literally, across the stage, making the complicated sequences look effortless and incredibly fun. The piece is visually graphic and offers contrasting elements: dancers bodies form straight lines that intersect and weave as they move across the stage and then dissolve into their singular spaces. The orange and pink stage lights heighten the hotness of the already fast-paced work, as does the movement of dancers coalescing into tight clusters then exploding outward. Scooping air as if to feed their creative fires, the dancers use open-handed gestures to signal the audience to catch the energy bursting beyond the stage. The piece had a swingingly raucous power that offered relief to this audience member’s body, sitting in her hard and unforgiving theater seat.

A few weeks ago, I attended another open studio where choreographer Anne Bartlett worked with three company dancers, Angela LaBorde, Sadie Carhart and Bridget Hendrix, to create “Dear Mom,” a piece that explores the relationships between three generations of women: a daughter, her mother and grandmother. An inward-looking and gestural piece rich in symbolic movement and different in temperament than “In the Groove,” collaboration and improvisation are central components.

The dancers were asked to contemplate their own relationships to female relatives to add “authentic experience” to the piece. Bartlett’s request led the dancers to identify words such as “reaching, pulling, offering, touching, holding and taking” that informed their movements with emotional content. Within the “movement material” that Bartlett prescribed, the dancers improvised. For example, a dance “phrase” may begin and end with an alternating, agitated hand motion, yet in between, the dancers were free to infuse their personal, expressive movements.

Bartlett’s use of collaboration and improvisation was reiterated through the use of live music in this piece. Bartlett’s husband, musician Jeroen van Tyn, used his sonorous and plucky violin, freestyle electric bass and throaty voicings to add integral elements. Van Tyn’s presence on the stage also added an edgy quality to this piece. Like the dancers, his artistic task was to improvise within a prescribed structure, taking cues from the dancers’ movements and giving them musical prompts in return. “Dear Mom” is the third piece that Bartlett and van Tyn have co-created, and it showcases the “natural interplay of music and dance, with the goal of the music becoming another dancer.”

One provocative segment of “Dear Mom” suggests an atmosphere familiar to anyone who has fully experienced the mother-daughter connection. Through terse contact and abbreviated movements, the use of occasional percussive claps, and audible exhalations, the dancers embody the contention and disagreement that can rift close relationships. This is a touching piece, which resolves in a gentle, cohesive harmony.

The 3rd Ave. Dance Co. has worked with guest choreographers each year for the past five dance seasons. Consequently, the company’s repertoire is diverse and includes a variety of commissioned dances by nationally acclaimed choreographers. One of the first pieces the company commissioned was “Luscious Chutney,” choreographed by Boulder–based Nancy Cranbourne, which the company debuted last year and is performing again this year. “Luscious Chutney” is a mesmerizing, multisensory experience that pulsates electricity and an ethnicity that is hard to put a finger on … is it Egyptian or East Indian? Dancer Suzy DiSanto recalled, “As Nancy was setting the piece on the company, she kept making references to Shiva, the goddess of dance. She asked us to feel the power of our femininity.”

Powerful it is, with the full company on stage dressed in Rajneesh-style vests amidst colorful stage lighting. The dancers flow and fill the performance space as if they are part of a single organism, caught in the mass movement of a crowded Bombay street. Alternating between fast-paced rhythms and soothing melodies, the music demonstrates the differing energies of the feminine aspect and is the driving force in this piece. The lighting changes and the dancers’ staccato arm and hand motions punctuate the piece’s dramatic ending, with all dancers instantly frozen in silhouette. I am certain that I smelled curry wafting through the air at this moment … a delicious offering.

More seasoned every year, the 3rd Avenue Dance Co.’s annual performances are enjoyable on many levels. The audience gets a vicarious physical workout just watching this athletic show, as well as a contact high from seeing the dancers thoroughly enjoying themselves. Through the passion, commitment and artistic direction of Bodwalk and DiSanto, the company has made it possible for aspiring dancers to study, apprentice and perform and has created a professional-level dance experience for the community to enjoy. •

Kristen Brewer performs "He Loves Me" during the "Love Letters" performance last week./Photo by Todd Newcomer.



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