March 29, 2002 DANCE SALAD Review

'Salad' has mouths agape;
Body slammers, tap diva enliven international showcase

By Molly Glentzer, Houston Chronicle

What a difference a little shuffling can make - and not just because tap dancing enlivened Friday's 'Dance Salad' program in the Wortham Theater Center's Cullen Theater. Nancy Henderek's contemporary global showcase grew this year into a three-night mini-festival. Five of Friday's 11 works were repeats from Thursday, but they appeared in a different order, and they flowed better with the new dances.

The mood was introspective but with light, quirky accents for balance. Several of the dances had common elements - mouths agape and bodies slamming. The mouth business is influenced by butoh, a modern dance form that grew out of the Japanese response to nuclear warfare. Contemporary choreographers have adapted it in interesting ways. It sometimes mirrors butoh's terrible, silent scream, but a wide-open mouth also can make a dancer look awestruck, silly, or like a baby bird waiting to be fed.

The gesture suggested amazement near the end of The Heart's Natural Inclination by Alonzo King's LINES Ballet. The San Francisco company showed great spring, attack and speed Thursday in King's Tarab. But The Heart's Natural Inclination, to electronic music by Leslie Stuck, had more depth. Here, King's movement was multidimensional, suggesting the complexity of love or perhaps the difficulty of finding creative inspiration.

The highlight was an inventive pas de deux in which a man with draggy feet (Christian Burns) tangled with purity in the guise of a dependent muse (Chiharu Shibata). Before the pas de deux, a ballerina tried and failed to pry the man's arms from a self-hug. The muse later was able to pull his arms apart - and then it was as if their bodies were glued together at the seams. A dancer's heart is largely in his or her legs. King turned these dancers' limbs into metaphorical marvels with a mix of pointe work and Pilobolus-like body pretzeling. In one of many "ohmygosh" movements, Shibata circled Burns several times with her legs wrapped around his torso.

A brief, spring-loaded solo with high kicks and off-center hips showed off dancer Gregory Dawson but didn't seem to fit the rest of the ballet. In the final section, the ballerina reappeared, served by two lines of dancers. They scooted on their behinds toward her and walked flat-footed - mouths agog - before she sent them falling like dominoes to the sound of tinkling glass.

Zhao Liang of China's Guangdong Modern Dance Company shrieked silently in the unsettling solo Do You Be. Choreographer Yunna Long (who also is Guangdong's principal female dancer) was inspired by a Chinese folktale about a lonely ghost in despair. It could just as easily have been an American Indian story, thanks to Meredith Monk's haunting music - a hybrid of shrieking and yodeling. Liang's appearance also added to the impression. He has a long mane of straight, jet-black hair that he slung in great arcs, letting it fall completely over his face. Liang is a pliant powerhouse, and he was so possessed that some people found it funny.

Guangdong's fierce, physical style climaxed in Sang Jigia's Heart, Shape, Substance/Comrades, a duet for Zhao and Wang Tao about warring egos and uneasy truces. Both men are small-boned but lithe and quick as flying nails. They were perfectly matched, line for line. Their bodies repeatedly rose up and crashed. They made triangles, hauling their rear ends up from the floor. Dazed, they fell to their knees. John Adams' epic-sounding music added substance.

Four Chinese women fell hard and heavy, too, in the repeat of 180 degrees. Xing Liang's choreography, set to Yo Yo Ma's interpretation of J.S. Bach, potently explored both the allure and oppressiveness of Oriental feminism. Expertly twirling, contemplating and hiding behind large orange fans, the dancers created a sense of sad inevitability.

Not to be outdone in the body-slamming department, Americans Jason McDole and Samuel L. Roberts shocked the audience when they fell backward - head to foot, with no support - in Robert Battle's Strange Humors. But they also flew like banshees and shook their bodies like trees full of blowing leaves. Their mouths, wide open for a laugh, were intentionally spastic-looking. The humorous, homoerotic duet had high energy, and it was a clear audience favorite.

Tap-dance diva Roxane Butterfly opened the show on a jazzy note, going beat for beat with drummer Bernice Brooks and saxophonist Sue Terry in Rhythm Is Our Voice. Butterfly wore red shoes (she's French, OK?) but otherwise could have hung with any of the old guys from New York.

Houston Ballet's Mireille Hassenbohler, Dominic Walsh and Nicholas Leschke were excellent in the lyrical, elegiac pas de trois from Timothy O'Keefe's World War II homage Uncommon Valor.

The Goteborg Ballet's swell Romeo and Juliet pas de deux, created by Martino Muller to the familiar Prokofiev score, was again one of the evening's most transcendent works. Rei Watanabe and Mattias Suneson - dancing in front of an abstract red set as jagged as the World Trade Center ruins - swept me completely along on their wave of ecstasy.

The other repeats - all worth second servings - included Rebecca Stenn's Iguana, the Norwegian National Ballet's Exilium and Guangdong's Linglei/Unusual.

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