Claire Trevor School of the Arts Presents ‘New Slate’

Courtesy of Claire Trevor School of the Arts

Two Fridays ago, I went to see “New Slate,” the yearly graduate choreography exhibition. The phrase “New Slate” promises a start-over, something new — a place to sketch a vision.Did the promise deliver? In some very remarkable ways it did — and did not. Even so, it was a vivid, memorable show.

The first piece, “Infinite Ties,” was by Melanie Hawkes, featuring music by Jason McCann and Escala. “Infinite” had one of the boldest and most unusual beginnings of all the “New Slate” works, though the whole piece was ultimately a faithful echo of William Forsythe’s choreographic aesthetics. The curtain came up on four dancers standing in the dark. Without music, each dancer clicks on a small flashlight and takes the light across the contours of her shifting limbs before extinguishing it. Eventually, eight other dancers join them, and all the lights flash once at the audience.

Visually, it was stunning — then the music began, the stage lights burst on, the dancers took off and the flashlights disappeared. The dancers darted across the floor in rapid, precise variations; they pulled against the music with slow, arresting lunges en pointe. Hawkes ended the piece wonderfully (thanks to lighting designer Kristin Neu): with the music just about to end, three dancers remained on stage and launched into flying splits. As soon as they hit midair, the lights flashed to darkness.

“The Big Song” was choreographed by Jennifer Lott and featured music from “Carmen” and “Milord.” This pas-de-deux between Jeremy Zapanta and Aska Sakuta was really delightful, with their set including a vintage gramophone next to an old chair. After ravishing French music descended, the boy and girl begin the first of a sequence of charming, witty, humorous pas-de-deux, which was a mix of contemporary and waltzing. However, I should have liked Lott to sustain the characters’ relationship more clearly during the lifts, transitions and such. On occasion, I felt I was watching dancers, not lovers.

Aska Sakuta choreographed “You” to Martim Galveo’s “Song of You.” She used four dancers: two male and two female, with all four wearing tan-colored leotards/tights. In the silence, a solitary male began to move languidly, sculpturally. The three in the back swayed from side to side in a kind of group hug. Eventually, the deep, regulated booming of a heartbeat came in; the choreography’s pace ranged from quick to slow and sensuous.

Sakuta examined a range of relationships, including groups, isolation and same-sex duets. The focus on animal instinct, or even the established primordial atmosphere, was frustrating — I kept thinking, “We’ve seen this before, what hasn’t art done with loneliness and sex?”

The other problem was that “You” felt very, very otherworldly, with the amber-harsh lighting suggesting a plateau on a desert planet. Though it attempted to address our humanity, occasionally I wondered whether we were watching humans or some other kind of creature; whether we were watching instincts, rather than human individuals.

Ali McKeon’s “Subtraction” opened with cold blue light on six dancers wearing maroon shirts and black pants, and the music by composer Daniel Andress Sanchez was a combination of piano and a deep, troubling bass. Caitlin Hicks was both the first and the last dancer to move, spiraling and blocking with particular authority. Next, Zapanta burst into action, and he was demonically fast.

All the dancers were impersonal to each other; “Subtraction” was a work of brisk negotiation. But despite the iciness, there was a haunting,  spectral quality about the work. There was something missing, but I was unable to identify it.

Mlondolozi Zondi, in collaboration with his dancers, gave us “In-Mate,” the most intense work of the night. Initially there was no “music” — only sounds — but the title of the track (“Fire, Famine, Plague, and Earthquake”) was the first hint of the piece’s apocalyptic-totalitarian nature. Plinking water, birdsong, rustling leaves — these are the sounds that begin “In-Mate.” Two dancers in drab clothing stumble in like dolls; they’re almost whimsical.

But something very wrong is going on here — the dancers spasm, with one girl repeatedly preventing the other from screaming out loud. The pace becomes increasingly frantic: the birdsong and crickets go silent, and an unsteady violin takes over. The stage lights get darker. Joined by men, the dancers stomp, twitch, dangle and kick with utter futility. Eventually, three men take hold of the fourth — he becomes a doll, helpless to their manipulations, and what is more, his captors begin to laugh loose, high-pitched laughs. Nearby, the women struggle with each other, and then the lights went dead.

I’ll be frank — it was grotesque and absolutely awful to watch. But thank you, Zondi — thank you for making me squirm in my seat. Thank you for making an unforgettable work of art that got us thinking. And bravo to the dancers who had the guts to pull it off.

After the intermission, David O’Kelley gave us “… and so we dance,”  which was a light, airy piece; his music came from Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Meyer. The choreography was clean but too simple. Alex Dreschke, the sole male dancer, tore across the stage in his jumps, lunges and runs. The pas-de-deux between Dreschke and Tivoli Evans needed work on transitions, but the piece was ultimately danced very well and with joy. O’Kelley brought Irish step-dance into his otherwise balletic work, something I would like to see again.

Next followed two more pieces that needed substance.

Jessie Ryan and her dancers created “Guernica” to Jared Mattson’s music. The dancers wore white and gray shirts and pants, a direct echo of Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war painting of the same title. I wish Ryan had incorporated more ideas, symbolic choreography, even plot — the work was too abstract until the very end.

Then came “The Approach” by Stefanie Maughan to the music of “Love Theme” by Nathan Barr. With Stacey McKenney’s lighting and use of fog and the three dancers’ blue dresses, the overall effect was that of an underwater world. However, the choreography, while contemplative, was unremarkable. Ashley LaRosa, Janine Montag and Kaitlyn Nguyen danced well.

Jackie Kopcsak created the final piece of the evening, “Divertissement Degas,” to the music of “Guillame Tell.” The work reimagined a rehearsal that Degas might have attended. Kopcsak gave unique expressions and motives to all 13 characters (eight dancers, five actors). Despite a corps of eight belle-like dancers, none were clones. There were fascinating bits of plot too: the patrons seem to favor one girl in particular — two girls review some choreography, and the lighting director makes his inspections. As for the dancing “performance,” there were lots of classic variation-like solos of virtuosity (three rounds of traveling jumps, pirouettes and such across the floor) and efficient use of a jubilant corps. Karen Wing, the main/first soloist, gave a technically brilliant, as well as richly expressive, performance.

As I said, it was a spectacular evening of humor, horror and heart. Walking out of the theater, I only wished that I could have seen it all again.