Project Moshen’s dynamic exploration of what it means to be happy

by Winfield Maben for The Dance Journal

On Friday night Philadelphia’s all female contemporary jazz company, Project Moshen, took the stage at The Performance Garage to unveil “Pursuit of Happiness” for their 2019 home season. The performance featured new works by artistic director Kelli Moshen as well as guest choreographer Shannon Bramham, a former Koresh Dance Company Member. Also featured were three dancers from the Institute of Dance Artistry, in collaboration with Project Moshen’s residency at the school, who opened the concert with a short piece by Kelli Moshen.

The company utilizes an intensely athletic movement vocabulary, embodying a sharp and tactile dynamic that draws the audience in and puts them to the edge of their seats. While the pieces performed throughout the evening range in tone from the lighthearted and comedic to tense and dramatic, that sense of vitality in the common movement shared by each work keep them all kinesthetically connected and help to string the audience along without the sense of dissonance that could accompany such a tonal variety otherwise. What is especially impressive about the concert is the fact that the movement never feels stale or repetitive, even though a common movement vocabulary can be felt throughout the progression of the works. This speaks to the strength of the movement itself as well as to the strength of Kelli Moshen’s choreography in that she is able to utilize her movement vocabulary across such a wide tonal spectrum.

The concert itself consists of nine primary works which range from the upbeat party atmosphere set by “Vibes” (the concert’s first work), to the eerie dreamlike quality of “State of Mind” and “Nightmare”, to more playful works like “Forget Your Troubles” and “$”. All of this culminates in “Chaotic Freedom”, which closes the concert in an explosion of sharp dynamic movement, finishing the evening in a cathartic and energetic outburst. Many of the pieces toy with synchronicity, where dancers will either explode out of synchronized movement into disparate counterpointed work, or will slowly build into a moment of synchronicity. This places them at an interesting juncture in relation to one another as often it seems as if they’re multiple representatives of a singular identity. This allows for a more thorough exploration of each piece, especially in works like the aforementioned “State of Mind” or “Forget Your Troubles”, both of which examine an internal conflict albeit from very different perspectives.

Focus is also a major component of Moshen’s work. Many pieces have an intense outward gaze which seems to challenge the audience while others, most notably the more lighthearted or playful works, contain interactions between the dancers themselves. This development of the internal versus the external builds all the way into the concert’s closing moments in which the audience is essentially rushed by the company. This moment feels earned and leaves the audience with a lasting impression as it is the logical conclusion of the relationship that had been slowly building throughout the evening.

While at first glance it may seem as if the themes and messages present throughout the concert are disconnected or isolated from each other, the connective tissue provided by the movement itself does imply a deeper connection between the works themselves. When thinking on the concert’s title the connection becomes clear, the key word being “Pursuit”. Moshen’s work explores the journey to attain happiness from a multifaceted perspective in which the goal, attaining happiness, is not the primary focus. Instead, alongside happiness itself, the focus is placed on all the other experiences that come along with that journey, whether they be anger, doubt, anxiety, desire. The good and bad are both put on display for the audience to experience alongside Moshen and her dancers.

Overall “Pursuit of Happiness” provides a thorough exploration of what it means to find happiness which is complimented by Project Moshen’s dynamic movement qualities and performance. The company’s ability to execute on such a broad thematic spectrum so consistently as well as their ability to maintain their high energy and intense dynamic movement throughout the entire concert provides an audience experience that is both exciting and compelling. On top of this, the addition of dancers from the Institute of Dance Artistry added a layer of community engagement and support for arts education which shows the company has a vested interest in the development of dance performance as an art form in future generations by going above and beyond to introduce young dancers to a professional performance environment. Through this concert Project Moshen demonstrates not only their range but their depth, as well as their regard for the form they represent on the stage, lending a small piece of their vitality to the audience for the duration of their vibrant performance.

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