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Mills Repertory Company show met with mixed reactions

Katie Condon

The Mills Repertory Dance Company’s opening night performance on Nov. 8 was a tortured mixture of innovation and agonizing boredom. The two-hour performance featured works by Trisha Brown, Molissa Fenley, Sonya Delawaide and others.

The show started twenty minutes late with a performance by a Mills College music group, the William Winant Percussion Group. They performed a John Cage piece, “Credo in Us.”

It was an interesting mixture of piano, paint can percussion, a record player and radio. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and classical piano music played by Kanoko Nishi was interrupted and juxtaposed with buzzes, beeps, sounds from the radio and percussion created by William Winant and Shayna Dunkleman. The near-cacophony played against the traditional piano music had the effect of making the piano sound all the more meaningful.

A short, sexy piece by Jose Navarette, “Celos”, combined a modern dance with elements of flamenco and swing dance. The four dancers, Stephanie Ballas, Sarah Bolton, Maria Houar and Daria Kaufman acted out love triangles and seductions with a romantic flair.

The highlight of the evening, “A Square Foot of Dirt,” a dance choreographed by Sonya Delawaide and set to the music of Phillip Glass, exuded an earthy playfulness.

A little bit primitive and a little bit childlike, the dancers in the piece responded to each other well. Their movement – at one moment stiff and then instantly fluid the next – was transfixing to watch. At times the dancers seemed to be channeling birds and then at other moments seemed to be getting to the essence of human interaction. The piece was heavy on theme, the dancers wore the same earth tones as the background set, but it was vague enough to leave the audience with something to think about.

The show began to go down hill with the piece “Laura’s Story,” a story/text by Mills alumna Laura Renaud-Wilson and directed by Kimiko Guthrie. The short dance/play was about the difficulty of telling a story that is both universal and personal and the elusive nature of dreams and memories and art’s inability to convey them perfectly.

Renaud-Wilson, as herself, attempts to tell her life story as a troupe of young dancers interrupt her, insult her and cover her story with their own.

For her sheer innovation, Renaud-Wilson deserves major credit. But, I am not sure it worked. A performance about the failure of performance to capture the essence of experience makes the whole thing look like, well, a failure.

Surprisingly disappointing, “Dreaming Awake,” by Molissa Fenley, was unequal to the sum of its parts. Choreographer Fenley has worked all over the world since graduating from Mills in 1975, but her piece “Dreaming Awake,” with beautiful music by Phillip Glass, was graceful and boring.

Though by far the most technically proficient dancer that performed – Fenley had a complete control and sense of her body that was unrivaled – her piece was just her dancing with no apparent pattern or theme and few interesting ideas. Though beautiful at first, Fenley’s piece wore thin quickly without any substance to back it up.

A study in contrasts, “Way Up,” with choreography by Tammy Cheney, started off with angelic looking dancers moving in a slow graceful pattern with a light-colored background. The music shifted midway through the performance and the dance took on athleticism and the devil’s own speed. The end result was a lovely, breathless and lively piece.

A recycled Trisha Brown piece, “Glacial Decoy Redux, (1979/2007)” with original set and costume design by visual artist Robert Rauschenberg seemed fresh and modern, despite being nearly thirty years old.
Shelley Senter, who adapted the piece for Mills College, shortened “Glacial Decoy” and incorporated new photographs and costumes based on Rauschenberg’s designs.

Set to no music, only the sound of dancer’s steps could be heard as they bobbed on and off stage in front of a slowly rotating projection of geometric black and white photos.

The dancers, clad in long white dresses and the photos -all of buildings and streets bereft of people but clear proof of civilization – seemed to be asking what role was left for humanity in a modern world.

The dancers, well in front of the pictures, did not interact with their background and rarely with each other. The gritty urban images reinforced the stranger-in-a-crowd feeling.
Overall it was a well-done, thought-provoking piece.

After a night of mostly triumphs and a few misses, I was walking out the door when Sonya Delawaide appeared on stage and begged “Wait! Don’t go yet.” But without any hesitation… I did.