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May 6, 2008

Zenon falls short of reputation 4/19/08

For 25 years Minneapolis’ Zenon Dance Company has entertained audiences with its grace, creative spirit and technical prowess. However, choreography in the company’s 25th anniversary spring concert failed to live up to its reputation.

The concert included two world premiers, “Hard Bargain? which featured Zenon’s men and “Where are these days, again?? featuring the women.

With an all male quartet and a title like “Hard Bargain? one expects the dancers to present their raw power and physical strength. This, however, was not the case. As the lights slowly rise, the audience sees Zenon’s four men dressed in seemingly 18th century garb – short dress-like shirts that not only reveal their chests but their rippling muscles, too. The choreography resembles that of young boys play fighting. The men humorously dance in one another’s faces, slap each other and then proceed to flex their arms.

The piece was lighthearted and fun. However, it was unclear if it was choreographer Sean Curran’s intention to twist audience expectations of what is considered “manly? dancing.

Aside from being painfully long, “Where are these days, again?? showed the versatility of Zenon’s four female dancers.

The piece featured the women in four unique solos. Amy Elaine Behm Thomson started the piece with arm and leg scissors which represented an inner frustration. Christine Maginnis twitched while she talked to herself in an obsessive compulsive manner. Mary Ann Bradley played with her wig and crawled on the floor as she spoke about a past memory. Tamara Ober ended the piece as she bellowed into a loudly amplified microphone.

While the piece proved that the women can act as well as dance, it also stereotyped them as hysterical women. The piece would have been stronger and more effective if each solo was half its length.

The three other pieces were dances from previous concerts. “The Secret Life of Walt and Kitty,? choreographed by Cathy Young in 2000, was flirtatiously funny. Dancers Behm Thomson and Gregory Waletski danced their version of the tango with a psychedelic, 1960s flare.

Circling a raised platform like stalking hunters, rolling and sliding across it in risky partnering moves, Waletski and Ober demonstrate another, more violent and erotic version of the tango in “Like An Octopus,? choreographed by Susana Tambutti in 1992.

The choreography was more dramatic and shocking than “The Secret Life.? For example, the piece ended when Waletski wrapped his arms around Ober’s neck and hung her off of the platform.

The last and final piece was Wynn Fricke’s “Garden.? The dancers’ movements, along with Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello,? transported the audience into a serene state of mind. The piece’s tranquility and charm nearly made up for the two-hour long disappointment.

Shaprio & Smith Dance performance paper 4/6/08

Shapiro & Smith Dance’s newest production "Next Steps" is an example of how production elements greatly aid a performance. The lights expressed the tone of each dance piece; the sound supported the choreography by creating a sensory ambiance; the costumes made each character come to life; and the choreography showed the thought and brilliance of the show’s maker.

I saw "Next Steps" twice. The first viewing was purely for my own enjoyment. The second time around however, I came in with a critical eye. While at the second viewing, I found that I felt certain ways depending on the lighting. In Maggie Bergeron’s piece “Accidentally Walking Through Nothing,? for example, I felt gloomy. I believe the reason for this was because the dark lights set a gloomy, lost tone. The best example of lights supporting a piece is seen in the second part of “What Dark/Falling Into Light.? The stark yellow of the lights provided a striking contrast to the very dark first half. The saturated yellow made the dancers – who are in great physical shape and are feed well – look sickly. Also, the blinding white light coming from the front floor lights brought out the fear, panic and distress in each performer’s face when they crawled to the front edge of the stage. This effect greatly supported the intention of the choreography and vision of the piece. In “Miniatures,? I enjoyed that the lights became the through line for the piece. A single light – that appeared to be coming from the prop door – introduced nearly every vignette. It created the sense that we were either going into or coming out of one of the character’s homes, which I appreciated.

The soundscapes of each piece created an ambiance in the theater. In my opinion, the best example of a mood generating soundscape is seen in “What Dark…Light.? In the first half of the piece, the voice of David Greenspan is heard. His words did not register in my mind (save for the phrase “what dark?) yet the sound of his voice and his inflections made me feel as if I was in a trance. Because I was in a mesmerized, trance-like state, the second half of the piece was much more jarring. I was pulled out of my glassy-eyed, tranquil (but not quite peaceful) state – created by Greenspan’s text – and was shocked by the jarring sounds of harsh breaths and trains rolling over tracks. The soundscape made me feel uncomfortable and unnerved which was part of the piece’s intention. The soundscape in “Miniatures? created a light, airy environment. The songs were pleasant and humorous. They also supported the characters that the dancers were representing. Conversely, Joanie Smith made the decision to perform her flower solo in silence. It worked because the absence of sound allowed the audience to focus solely on the character. The character was so lively and full that I appreciated not being distracted by any of the other production elements.

Costuming in "Next Steps" allowed characters to develop in each piece. Specifically in “Miniatures? the costumes made the characters seem somewhat unreal. I say this not because they couldn’t exist but rather they seemed overly exaggerated in color and size and therefore a bit unreal. I suppose a better way of putting this is I felt like the dancers could have been cartoon characters. The colors were not only ones that many people don’t wear – or at least not in those particular combinations – but they were also overly vibrant, much like that of cartoon shows. The costumes also did not fit the dancers well. Because of this, I felt as if the dancers were children who were trying on their parents clothing. The costumes did however help create relationships between the dancers. In one of Ned Sturgis’ ball dances, Mathew Janczewski was behind him in the dimly light upstage area. They were doing the same movement in nearly perfect synchronization. I felt like Mathew’s character was the father of Ned’s character because their costumes were the same colors. Ned was wearing a bright green shirt and dark pants while Mathew was wearing a dark shirt and bright green pants. Another example is a quartet between Ned, Maggie, Kari Mosel and Eddie Oroyan. Ned and Kari were supposed to be a couple and were dressed in similar colors. The same is true for Maggie and Eddie. I am not certain if these specific costume choices were done on purpose but I have a hard time thinking they all happened accidentally because they so perfectly create relationships between the characters.

It is impossible to talk about a dance show without talking about the choreography. The movement in every piece was inventive and breathtaking. The quality with which the performers dance is full of ease, even though I know the movement is anything but easy. In “Accidentally…Nothing,? Maggie developed a motif by repeating a certain moment in the choreography. Doing this gave meaning to the movement which then gave meaning the entire piece. I am most impressed with the choreography of “Miniatures.? This is because it is the first Shapiro & Smith Dance piece that was choreographed after Danny Shapiro’s death. I am pleased that Joanie was able to finish a piece on her own and still keep the integrity and feel of the company when her partner was alive. It was as if his spirit and creativity were around as the choreography was being created. Joanie has said that the dancers helped come up with “Danny-like? choreography which I’m sure eased the transition from co-artistic director to artistic director.

The production elements of Shapiro & Smith Dance’s "Next Steps" greatly aided the performance. The lights expressed the tone of each dance piece which gave me chills; the sound supported the choreography by creating a sensory ambiance which filled the theater; the costumes made each character come to life in a pleasant and oftentimes fun manor; and the choreography showed the thought and brilliance of the show’s maker Joanie Smith.

"Next Steps" rehearsal 3/14/08

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Shaprio & Smith Dance artistic director Joanie Smith and company member Kari Mosel relax before rehearsal in studio 100 at the University of Minnesota’s Barbara Barker Center for Dance. The company’s newest show, "Next Steps," opens April 3 and runs through April 6 at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

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Company members Mosel and Laura Selle-Virtucio watch a duet on video as they wait for others to arrive at rehearsal. Selle-Virtucio said the process for "Miniatures" is unusual because they will have had no more than 10 rehearsals with the full cast by the time the show opens.

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Smith directs dancers Selle-Virtucio, Mosel, Eddie Oroyan and Maggie Bergeron in rehearsal for Shapiro & Smith Dance’s upcoming show "Miniatures." "Miniatures" is the first new work the company has produced since the death of co-artistic director Danial “Danny? Shapiro.

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Shapiro & Smith Dance company members run through “Hurricane,? a quartet in the company’s upcoming show "Miniatures." Smith said the audience will get glimpses of relationships in each "Miniatures" vignette. “It’s like looking into a painted egg,? she said.

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Company member Ned Sturgis stretches as other members rehearse “Hurricane.? While Sturgis has previously performed in Shapiro & Smith Dance repertoire as an undergraduate at the university, "Miniatures" is his first show as a company member.

Shaprio & Smith Dance takes its "Next Steps" 3/7/08

Shapiro & Smith Dance, a local modern dance company, will grace the stage of Minneapolis’ Southern Theater with their newest show "Next Steps," which introduces the company’s first new work since the death of co-artistic director Danial “Danny? Shapiro in 2006.

The evening-long modern dance show, which runs April 3 through April 6 at the Southern, consists of "What Dark/Falling Into Light" (premiere: 1996) and the premieres of "Miniatures" and "Accidentally Walking Through Nothing."


Miniatures, a dance that gives glimpses into people’s relationships, is the first new work choreographed without Shapiro.

Artistic director Joanie Smith said it was difficult to develop new material after her 21-year working relationship with Shapiro. Shapiro & Smith Dance was founded in 1985. Two years later, they premiered their first production in New York City. Smith said most of their early productions were duets between her and Shapiro and were based on human relationships.

Smith said Shapiro’s death has caused her to feel like half a person in the choreographic process. She also said the process felt odd because she couldn’t discuss the dances with her artistic partner.

To ease the creative process for this batch of new works, Smith brought in company member Laura Selle-Virtucio and former member Mathew Janczewski to discuss ideas with her.

Other company members aided the process by providing Smith with their own movement phrases. According to Smith, much of the movement given was “Danny like? because it was physically daring and athletic.

Throughout rehearsals, Smith said, Shapiro’s memory was everywhere. He is in the dancers’ movements, even though a handful of company members have trained with him, because they all have danced in his repertoire.

Smith also said Shapiro is ever present because the dancers constantly bring him up in conversation.

"Accidentally Walking Through Nothing" choreographed by company member Maggie Bergeron, will also be premiered in "Next Steps." Smith and Shapiro, before his death, chose Bergeron to participate in their first mentorship program, which offers financial and artistic support to young choreographers for new work.

Bergeron said her dance is about the stories we have to create and believe in order for us to get from one place to the other. “It also has to do with ideas of faith, doubt and proof,? she said.

"What Dark/Falling Into Light" will also be in "Next Steps." According to Smith, the piece is about the Holocaust and through its choreography, asks why and how such an event can be put on stage. Partial nudity highlights the vulnerability of the performers in the piece, she said.

To reserve tickets call the Southern Theater box office at 612-340-1725. Tickets are $24.