Seldom does an evening of new dance expand not only an audience's aesthetic palate but its scholarly one as well.
The University Dance Company's spring concert Thursday evening was an exception.
"Solidarity," a dance choreographed by Kansas University dance professor Joan Stone, paid homage to the stalwart women who marched on behalf of labor rights for coal miners in 1920s Kansas. The piece was inspired by Lawrence artist Wayne Wildcat's painting "Solidarity: March of the 'Amazon Army,'" which was projected on a screen at the beginning and end of the dance.
Stone narrated the story as nine dancers interpreted the tale with the heavy movements of women's work, the restricted movements of miner's work and the high steps of marching. The ensemble segments illustrated the unity inherent in the dance's title. The use of narration made a few extended dance periods seem like too much of a break in the story, but overall the piece educated and entertained.
Muriel Cohan and Patrick Suzeau's "Hombre Errante" ("Wandering Man") evoked the isolation of the lone traveler and the chaos of life. An ever-undulating ensemble of dancers in vibrantly colored costumes echoed the rich textures of the a cappella choral music composed by Gabriela Lena Frank and recorded by KU's Chamber Choir. Based upon Peruvian Quechua Native American poetry, the score used spoken and sung lyrics to build lines and then dissolve them into discord. Short, percussive voice sounds created backdrops for soloists. Dancers followed suit. Cohan/Suzeau's signature mixture of staccato and smooth, give and go infused the piece with something electric, and Suzeau danced the solo role with precision and riveting energy.
Featured on the program was "Beat," a too-cool tiptoe through Beat Generation hip by Kansas City Ballet director William Whitener, who set the dance on the company during a February residency. In the jet-black uniform of the '50s and '60s hipster set, dancers slinked, bantered and resurrected swanky period dances. The playful, humorous work was set to a trio of spoken word and clapping tracks and, despite its whimsy, retained an admirable tightness. This was especially true in the second segment, danced by a perfectly in-sync Deanna Doyle and Beau Hancock.
KU faculty choreographed the other two works on the program. "My Aine Countrie," by KU dance director Jerel Hilding, blended traditional Scottish dances with modern twists set to Scottish folk songs. The highlight was a segment danced by six men to "Down Among the Dead Men." The dancers raised beer mugs in convivial toasts, arm-wrestled and knocked each other down during the crisply choreographed romp of one-upmanship.
"Happenstance," by Willie Lenoir, explored male-female relationships and feminine power. Ten dancers performed the work, which Lenoir created for a recent local theater production of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie," a turn-of-the-19th-century play that examines women's roles. Male-female pairs formed. Women walked on men. Men lifted women, carried them offstage. Couples broke apart. The pace accelerated when the dance broke into a sort of hoe-down meant to evoke the revelry of Midsummer's Eve. The two halves of the dance complemented each other in some ways, but mirrored each other enough in others that they felt redundant.