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"The Bad and the Beautiful" by Center Dance Ensemble

“The Bad and the Beautiful” was a fitting title for Center Dance Ensemble‘s season opener at the Herberger Theater Center this weekend. The work in the show ranged all the way from the organically beautiful work of guest choreographer Diane McNeal Hunt, to the archaically bad premieres of choreographer and artistic director Frances Smith Cohen.

The show opened with the premiere of “With Wings,” choreographed by Cohen. This work presented all of the strengths and weaknesses of the company. The program note included the quote “when you dance, you fly.” Aside from this statement not being entirely true, since many dance styles emphasize the importance of grounding and rooting to the floor, I am also not sure what this statement had to do with the plot that portrayed the transformation from student to teacher.

The first section of “With Wings” was a promising solo performed by Amber Robins. She is a seasoned performer with technical strength, an attentive maturity and not to mention, she has jaw-dropping back muscles. The clarity of her movement and her ability to fulfill Cohen’s empty choreography had me thinking that the company and Cohen had evolved.

Unfortunately, as the piece progressed, melodramatic facial expressions, empty gaps in the choreography, an overly predictable relationship between the movement and music and a lack of consideration for levels and transitions proved that it is time for Cohen to study her choreography on a deeper level or retire to the position of a much-loved teacher and artistic director.

Cohen’s shape-oriented choreography was influenced heavily by Graham Technique. It is time for Center Dance Ensemble to evolve. Even Martha Graham’s company has moved on to utilizing contemporary choreographers such as Sonya Tayeh from “So You Think You Can Dance.”

As I scanned through the list that presented the large amounts of funding that Center Dance Ensemble accumulates from their supporters, I wondered why the company does not bring in more choreographers to set work on the dancers. The dancers are incredibly talented and showcase strength, control and professionalism.

Diane McNeal Hunt’s premiere of “Night of Moonlit Wild” was evidence that the dancers in Center Dance Ensemble are capable of performing at a professional level. Although the movement was an important element of this piece, what made this the best work I have seen by a professional Phoenix dance company was the entire atmosphere that Hunt created.

With only a few elements, the stage transformed into a dark forest where only a few rays of moonlight reached to the surface. Even the dancers turned into moving trees. Hunt choreographed the movement down the fingertips, which were shaped into haggard twigs. She utilized branches and the dancers’ breath to create additional arrhythmic sound scores on top of the music. If Center Dance Ensemble wants to build a stronger reputation among the Phoenix dance community, it will need to commission more work like “Night of Moonlit Wild.”

I did enjoy the second half of the show, which was a revival of “Billy the Kid,” choreographed by Cohen. The work was fun, and it was clear that time had developed this piece. The storyline was apparent, with the use of role-showing costumes and pantomime. The piece had every element of entertaining drama, including love, pain and suffering.

With many years under its belt, Center Dance Ensemble can afford to revive older work during its shows. This is a common practice of many older established companies. However, the ensemble needs to keep it to one archaic choreographic piece/show and allow the talents of today’s world of dance to manifest on the able bodies of Center Dance Ensemble’s performers.

To see this post as it was originally published alongside other reviews of Phoenix arts events, check out the Downtown Devil Curtain Critic.

Photography by Tim Fuller

Review by Julie Akerly

October 23, 2014

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