MFA Students ‘Inspire’

Several months ago, I interviewed two MFAs in the UCI Dance Department, Jackie Kopcsak and Vincent Hardy. We talked about their experiences as professional dancers, their research and choreographic vision, as well as their aspirations. By chance, their thesis choreography projects were combined for a single performance this past Wednesday, titled “Evening of Inspiration.” In two hours, however, the audience experienced both the wit of 19th century Parisian Opera and the glories of cathedral or heaven-like spaces.

Kopcsak’s “Divertissement Degas” came first, a compelling combination of ballet, acting, art history and opera. To my great delight, Kopcsak choreographed a number of Edgar Degas’ famous works into the performance, including the famous “Little Dancer.”

The ballet master (Alex Dreschke) chooses the heroine, Julie, an aspiring opera dancer, to be the star of his next ballet. The plot hinges on whether she shall choose love, her mother’s dreams, a pompous patron or dancing. This world of ribbons, petticoats, top hats and suits is not only full of beauty and wit, but also weighted with politics of patronage and ambition.

Kopcsak delivered a rich, nuanced show, which remained strong until the very end. Motifs included clean, calligraphic footwork (“warm-up”), grand turns en pointe, luxurious waltzes, etc., which shaped well on the sunny corps de ballet.

One of Kopcsak’s most obvious strengths is her musicality: not only was the music well-planned (kudos to Leo Delibes, Jules Massenet, Andre Messager and Giochino Rossini), but also the conversations between the notes and steps.

A notable performance came from Karen Wing, playing the protagonist Julie; she breezed through sequences of lush turns, arabesque balances and waltzes. Mason Trueblood, her frivolous patron, bounded into virtuoso, bombastic leaps, pausing to adjust his coattails; Ryan Thomas, playing Julie’s violinist-paramour, emoted little, but his partnering was efficient. Thea Patterson mostly acted  (and managed in an otherwise bizarre pas-de-deux with Thomas), and her expressions as Julie’s ambition-mad mother were clear and nuanced.

Fun and humor abounded the snooty patron and twittering dancers, frequently leaving the audience in stitches. At the end, the soapy love triangle (between Julie, her paramour and the patron) was much too drawn out, and suffered when we were supposed to take it seriously. Apart from such a fussy melodrama, the show glittered as a gem of research and care, complete with beautiful steps, dancers, music and costumes.

Next came Vincent Hardy’s “Journey to Salvation.” Hardy worked in the abstract, applying contemporary choreography to music by Arvo Part and Hans Zimmer. The curtain opened with six dancers in beige fan skirts, bathed in chiaroscuro lighting, entering quietly from the side; Hardy effectively created a sanctuary onstage. In this first section (Part’s haunting “Triodion”), the dancers’ port-de-bras resembled everything from stonework to cradles; while the other five kneeled, one dancer spiraled, and hurled into sauté chats.

Later the dancers re-emerged in ornate, black “Renaissance Fair”-style dresses, bursting into angry twists and leaps, grappling with each other in terrific, maddening duets. Tremendous, heartfelt dancing propelled the entire work. Standouts included the literally tour-de-force Sakina Ibrahim; Stefanie Maugahn’s fluidity and hungry expressiveness; Ginny Ngo’s gracious movement; and Kaitlin Nguyen’s earnestness.

At one point, the group of dancers huddled in a dimly lit center, taking fragile steps forward. Silkily, eerily, a girl would collapse, sometimes on the right, sometimes the left, with her friends gently pulling her up. Progressively, however, the falls outpaced the Good Samaritans. The dancers drifted apart: divided, they no longer noticed each other collapsing. When the last girl turned around, she saw her friends lying around her, as if on a battlefield. Hardy also brought “angels” to the struggling characters — dancers in white, with unfortunately distracting wrist-sashes.

The piece ended (almost) with heaven: I am glad that Hardy avoided any floaty, flitting port-de-bras — this is no heaven of harps and halos. Rather, it was an artist’s heaven, with soul-dancers continuously shaping the light-filled space around them. God did appear in their midst — and while it could have been tactlessly handled, Hardy instead chose not to make himself the center of the performance. Rather, he ecstatically greeted his soul-dancers and moved with them — or perhaps they with him.

“Salvation,” ultimately ended the night with a foot-stomping, hand-clapping bow and encore to a contemporary praise song, and all his dancers emerged beaming, in T-shirts and jeans.

One of my only complaints at first was that the show’s title was rather bland, but I am happy to report that it truly was an evening of inspiration.