Gwendolyn Bye’s Dance Voices Past & Present

Gwendolyn Bye Dance Fusion
Photo credit: Randi Bye

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

Gwendolyn Bye’s company Dancefusion has performed every year at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival it began. This year the troupe collaborated with the North Carolina-based company Movement Migration for a concert titled Dance Voices. Their dance concert at Neighborhood House in Old City October 1-2, included four short contemporary works and a forgotten gem from 1967 by legendary choreographer Mary Anthony. Part of Dancefusion’s artistic mission is as a dance repertory company focused on important (and underappreciated) choreographers, a list that includes Anthony, Anna Sokolow, Jose Limon, and others.

Gwendolyn Bye’s Dancefusion is also committed to cultural and generational inclusion, diverse voices, and bodies represented on the dance stage. Movement Migration’s roster includes veteran dancers who left the business at the expected age of around 40 but have now returned to the dance stage.

Philadelphia choreographer Omar Frederick Pratt’s ‘The Space Between’ opened the program. An ensemble piece for eight dancers, a movement meditation articulates loss, absence, yearning, and the need for re-connection.

The ensemble is seated in a circle around soloist Ty Saan Brokenboro, who whirls and leaps to the spacey music of Craig Armstrong. The configuration breaks apart, and he has a duet with Julia Spooner, but they drift apart as the rest of the cast tries to connect. The stage seems a little cramped for Pratt’s fast-moving unison turns and leaps and dramatic clusters. The piece looked a bit under-rehearsed, but the ensemble esprit and messages of human connection certainly resonate in our time of uncertainty.

Next was a duet called ‘Revive’ choreographed by Amy Claugus and Pablo Ruvalcaba from Movement Migration. Cluagus was unable to dance for this performance, but the company’s artistic director Kim Jones stepped in beautifully.

Set to cinematic jazz of Mark Lewis’ ‘Spectacle Machine’ to underscore a dance-noir seduction, in ways looked like an abstract paso double danced by two veterans of bitter heartbreak. Jones along the back wall and Ruvalcaba downstage, writhing on the floor. They inch closer, with halting, defensive physicality, sudden embraces, and intimate bodyscapes. Their moves unpredictably, in its intimacy and the freshness of the choreography. It is very different from standard neomodern bravura pas de deux, as it dynamically paints a relationship picture of lovers with torrid past. The chemistry between these dancers smoldered from start to finish. By the denouement, you wanted to know more about these dancers and this dance.

In contrast, the following work, ‘Ghost Island Suite’ by choreographer Jennifer Yackel has lyrical simplicity danced by Janet Pilla Marini, Kate Lombardi, and Julia Spooner. Set to contemporary chamber music by the Kronos Quartet. It tells the story of an island in the Chesapeake that was submerged. In an ebb and flow to a waltz, the women step forward and back, portraying the are the ‘Ghosts of the Bay.’ The music is less dreamy in the next scene, ‘At Work On the Water’ the trio dancing more regimented as they repeated lunge down, fists in hammer-like motion, the 3rd part is a ‘The Island’ In Remembrance’ as Lombardi remains onstage and removes her shoes and dances around barefoot.

Next, ‘Untamed’ by Movement Migration’s artists E.E. Balcos and Masha Daskina Maddux proved to be the second erotic thriller of the night. The dissonant sounds of ‘Speed Limit’ by composer Craig Bove sets the mood as the lights come up on dancer Jacqueline White, who is pressing her body into the floor, then in slow motion contortions. Balcos enters, and they circle each other as their bodies come together in a feral tango. Each dancer was switching off their lead, leaving the question, who will dominate or submit, what is a ritual, what is real. The almost pugilistic dance wrestling, aggressive releases and lifts, and dramatic moments occur as White’s long hair completely hides her face as she lunges for Balcos. This one lived up to its title, choreographically, and the dramatic intensity of these dancers.

A key to both ‘Untamed’ and ‘Revive’ was inspired by a kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely, with the theme of human interaction expressed in motion, resulting in opposing outcomes.

Bye’s reconstruction of excerpts of Mary Anthony’s ‘Gloria’ is an exemplar of neoclassical dance storytelling of the mid-20th century, the style reminiscent of Martha Graham’s ‘Episodes’ (about Mary, Queen of Scots’ demise) and Jose Limon’s ‘The Moor’s Pavane,’ after Shakespeare’s Othello. The score by French composer Francis Poulenc is an ecclesiastical chorale that thunders over the three scenes.

In the first scene, Kate Lombardi leads the quartet with Janet Pilla Marini, Gabrielle Wright, and Julia Spooner, costumed in Renaissance dance dresses with arms raised to the heavens, as they haltingly move over the stage, kneel as they set rapturous prayer vigil. The precision, deportment of the dancers, and tricky phrasing are a bit brittle at first but more naturalized by the end of the scene.

They are followed by Omar Frederick Pratt, Ty Saan Brokenboro, and Cameron Childs in a mens’ court dance of repeated bravado leaps and arabesques. They quickly charge off stage, then but inch back in distress, hands fanning over their mouths as they slowly drop to the ground. The women rush on to pray over their bodies in the finale. Anthony’s stylized gestures that convey the tragic stories are dance exposition of grand gesture, precision, and understated expression. It is very dated but significant to revisit new generations of diverse dancers for its technical requirements.

It was a substantive program for Dancefusion’s return after 18 months, and kudos to Gwendolyn Bye for continuing to show something different each time out for her Philly Fringe engagements.

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