by Jane Fries for The Dance Journal
The Trenton-based dance company DanceSpora premiered two works at the Conwell Theater on Friday night. Pennsylvania Ballet alumnus Heidi Cruz-Austin’s Near Dark, set to music by LOG.Os, shared a program with her sister Felicia Cruz’s ScrapBox. What is clear from both pieces is the skillful and spirited dancing power of this youthful company.
Cruz-Austin danced with the PA Ballet for over a decade beginning in 1995. She also performed with Ballet X and choreographed work regularly for the “Shut Up and Dance” fundraiser for MANNA. Needless to say, Cruz-Austin is well-known and loved by Philadelphia audiences, and high hopes for the company that she now she co-directs with husband David Austin and sister Felicia Cruz are proving to be well-founded.
In the psychodrama Near Dark, Cruz-Austin tackles the ambitious theme of the interplay between ego and awareness. The work makes remarkable use of the ensemble to express its abstract idea. In the first section, eight dancers (wearing combinations of white, black, or grey shorts and shirts) are onstage together; yet they dance alone, become startled when they notice one another, and abruptly head for the wings.
Two beautifully danced duets follow: an unhappy one where Kimberly Landle and Curtis Lassiter II seem to be in their own worlds (when he lifts her, she’s looking away, searching for something else), and a second one where Felicia Cruz and Lyron Paulin comingle their long limbs, still conflicted, but in the end he’s reaching out for her.
The mood becomes more curious as the ensemble tries out dancing in unison and explores the possibilities of pairs coming together. Cruz-Austin’s choreography responds to the rhythmically quirky electronic score with idiosyncratic gestures. Here, as throughout the piece, the dancers’ torsos are in constant motion, tilting off-center, arching, turning – drawing our imagination into the movement’s propulsive physical logic.
In the final section, the ensemble dances with greater lyricism and harmony, coming together in an outward facing circle with arms stretched and eyes focused upwards. A resonant psychological journey has been packed into twenty or so minutes. In Near Dark, Cruz-Austin doesn’t waste a single beat.
ScrapBox opens with Felicia Cruz sitting in an armchair downstage, looking through scrapbooks, saying, “I remember…” The piece could easily be a nostalgic trip down memory lane, but instead Cruz gives us a feverish dream about the loss of childhood innocence and the intense struggles of growing up, fitting in, and finding one’s identity. The work is set to an eclectic collage of spoken verse, Vivaldi’s “Spring,” and a piano cover of pop group Jimmy Eat World’s “Angels Lead You In.”
The dancing begins with a fluid ensemble section (the men in street clothes and the women in various short dresses) that recalls the happy sunshine of youth, but soon dissolves into the more complicated, sharper edged rites of adolescence. Three soloists emerge from the group: the delicate yet fiery Landle, the assured and subtle Cruz-Austin, and the commanding Lassiter II.
Cruz’s choreography inventively shapes an underlying contemporary ballet technique. The ensemble work is rock solid, with lovely, buoyant accents.
The evening’s dancers also included Amanda Edwards, Shelby Glidden, Blythe Smith, Hannah Wasserman, and Brittney Dunbar. Many in the troupe have studied at the University of the Arts, and they are a poised and expressive group, reeling off arabesques and turns with easy finesse.
DanceSpora is the resident dance company of Trenton, New Jersey’s Passage Theater Company and presents bi-annual concerts at their home theater, the Mill Hill Playhouse in downtown Trenton. In addition to the highly accomplished Heidi Cruz-Austin, DanceSpora’s co-directors are David Austin and Felicia Cruz.
Austin is an influential hip-hop dancer who honed his art in the dance clubs of New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia, and who was a lead dancer with Rennie Harris Pure Movement. A classically trained dancer like her older sister, Felicia Cruz has danced with numerous professional dance companies including Carbon Dance Theater under the direction of Meredith Rainey.
The company is on the rise, with performances at NYC10 Festival and Koresh Come Together Festival. Felicia Cruz’s For Tranquility’s Sake was performed at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
For Friday’s Fringe performance, DanceSpora focused its resources on choreography and dancing, however it would be excellent to see what they could do with a larger budget for sound and lighting production. In a fantasy art world where money is no object (we can always dream), the directors would surely take their artistic vision to the next level.
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