Modern movement

June 12, 2008|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,Special to the Sun

During the Columbia Festival of the Arts this month, bodies in motion will honor Latin American traditions through contemporary dance, portray the human experience with jazz accompaniment and employ acrobatics and contraptions in an attempt to defy the laws of physics.

The inspirations are different for the three dance companies included in this year's festival lineup, but the founders of Luna Negra Dance Theater, Garth Fagan Dance and STREB share a goal to give audiences something new, insightful and beautiful.

"I just wanted to see a different way of moving on the stage," Garth Fagan said of founding his company in Rochester, N.Y. "I wanted to add to the stew of contemporary dance that is out there."

In addition to dance, the festival will offer two weeks of music, visual arts, literary activities, family entertainment and other artistic endeavors.

The festival kicks off tomorrow with three days of LakeFest, a free celebration at the Columbia lakefront featuring music, children's activities, visual artists and several fun competitions.

Singer Judy Collins is the headlining act; she'll perform June 24. The East Village Opera Company, an audience favorite at the 2006 festival, will return for the finale June 28.

Dance performances will take place at the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts in Columbia. Luna Negra will perform on June 17, STREB on June 20 and Garth Fagan Dance on June 27. Each company will also offer master classes for skilled dancers, and Luna Negra is offering a Latin dance class open to dancers of all abilities June 16. Classes require registration.

"Dance has always been, throughout the history of the festival, one of the most popular elements of the overall program," said Nichole Hickey, the festival's executive director.

In selecting dance groups for the festival, "diversity is a factor, always," Hickey said. In addition, "We always seek out performances and artists that are going to be a fresh face. ... We try to mix established artists with emerging artists."

Luna Negra focuses on contemporary dance by Latino choreographers.

"It is the fusion of who we are as Latin Americans, and that background and how we have evolved here" in the United States, said founder and artistic director Eduardo Vilaro, who incorporates Latino visual artists and composers into his productions as well.

Despite the vibrant Latino community in Chicago, where the 10-year-old company is based, Vilaro, who was born in Cuba, said there is a lack of Latino-oriented dance groups in the city.

He said he strives to perform Latino-inspired dance for the general public, not only at cultural-specific parades or festivals.

"I try to strike up a conversation," he said. "What do people want to know about the culture? It's about inclusion, not exclusion."

Fagan describes the company he founded 28 years ago as combining the sense of weight seen in modern dance, the speed and precision of ballet, and the polyrhythms and torso movement of African and Caribbean dance.

He gained recognition for his choreography of The Lion King on Broadway. That work earned him a Tony Award in 1998.

Fagan describes himself as "a huge, huge jazz fan" and has developed works with music by Wynton Marsalis, Billy Bang and Jelly Roll Morton. Fagan said his dancers "respond to the music. They do riffs on the music as jazz musicians would do."

He also said he has taken parts of African and Caribbean dances out of their traditional contexts. "I want just the movements themselves ... and to weave them into modern dance formats," he said.

Throughout his works, he strives for a natural, spontaneous-looking movement. It is, he said, "the idea of people dancing as opposed to dancers portraying people."

Elizabeth Streb has taken her dance background in such a direction that she says the word "dance" might not be accurate to describe her company's works.

The form she calls "popaction" is an abstract approach to movement that combines gymnastics, extreme sports and daring, stuntlike feats.

In shows like STREB vs. Gravity, which will be performed at the festival, mechanical equipment, including harnesses, walls, giant rolling wheels, swinging steel beams and tilting platforms, extends what the performers can do with the human body.

"We are a spectacle," she said.

The physical feats are the purpose of the work, and inspiration comes not from music but from visual arts and mechanical engineering.

The subject is movement, she said. "The more extreme we are, the clearer it becomes."

Schedule highlights

LakeFest activities

LakeFest runs 5 p.m.-11 p.m. tomorrow, noon-11 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m.-7 p.m. Sunday. Activities are free and take place at the Columbia lakefront.

Tomorrow-Sunday -- Taking Flight with the Arts, 5 p.m.-11 p.m. tomorrow, noon-11 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m.-7 p.m. Sunday

Tomorrow -- Book premiere: Oh, You Must Live in Columbia: The Origin of Place Names in Columbia, MD, by Missy Burke, Robin Emrich and Barbara Kellner, 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.

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