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By Jared Alokozai

What language and semantics cannot express, perhaps a body in rhythmic motion can. At the Irvine Barclay Theatre  this past weekend, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts tapped into the boundless body eloquence of dance in their 16th annual student showcase, Dance Visions.

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In “House of Tears,” celebrated choreographer Donald McKayle presents an evocative piece that tells the violent and heartbreaking story of the Argentine Dirty War through the eyes of “the Disappeareds.” Photo courtesy of Rose Eichenbaum.

Six vignettes or visions comprised the show, each with their own thematic emotion proudly demonstrating the eclectic range of the dance program. From the precision of classical ballet conventions, to the writhing abstractions of modern, this ambitious spread aimed to satisfy the palates of as many art-patrons as possible.

A nod to UCI Dance’s strong ballet-focused program, the first vision choreographed by virtuoso Professor of Dance Tong Wang was a rendition excerpt from the romantic ballet, “Giselle.” Beginning during what would be act II of the full concert, this excerpt explores the Wilis,  phantasmic forest spirits who resurrect the peasant girl Giselle.

As an apéritif, this pagan, folkloric classic was a crowd favorite. Haunting lighting and costuming, combined with well-placed ether fog and masterful handling of the score by the UCI Symphony Orchestra, transformed the stage into a vision world perfectly staging the concert’s wide range.

Embodying the vengeful specter of Myrta, the spirit queen, soloist Skye Schmidt elicited audible gasps and swoons with her capable athleticism and graceful adagios which propelled her weightlessly among the ghostly ensemble.

The next piece, “United We Stand Divided,” choreographed by Shaun Boyle, thrusted the show into the 21st century. Angled lighting evoked shadowplay, with the small cast of six multiplying as they projected shadow doubles onto the wall. A trance drone drum n’ bass score revealed Boyle’s London influence. Sporadic timing and disjointed synchronicity the dancers writhing on the floor, then tumbling into a leggy pose or into staccato arm ticking successfully delivered moody inquietude.

The next two routines continued this dive into modern choreography. Legendary professor emeritus Donald McKayle choreographed “Bittersweet Farewell,” a moving lamentation of legato fluency articulating arm-in- arm with the unexpected score. Heavy symphonic metal from Finnish and American metal cellists, Apocalyptica and Break of Reality, structured the routine’s grief with the powerful resonance of metal.

Following this, Charlotte Griffin’s “The Only Sound against this Stillness” was perhaps the most esoteric dance of the night. Erudite and experimental, the score was an operatic, hymnal reading of excerpts of Jim Harrison’s free verse landscape poetry, read by Robin Buck and accompanied by Alan Terricciano on the baby grand. Perhaps this piece sought to evoke a conversation between the multi-medias, but didn’t seem to stick.

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Skye Schmidt, center, shines as Myrta in Dance Visions’ interpretation of the ballet “Giselle.” Photo courtesy of Rose Eichenbaum. 

Though Buck’s baritone is indeed powerful and full, it just did not complement Jim Harrison’s matter-of-fact wordplay; it overpowered it and  dissolved all meaning from it. Terricciano adeptly handled tricky time signatures, but the dissonance of his non-melodies, distracted from Buck’s full timbre. The dancer’s abstract shaping and athleticism wasn’t in conversation with this distracting score, but instead seemed to happen without it. If anything, this piece showed what sometimes happens when a university tries to play with and between different conservatories.

After that head-scratcher of a piece, guest artist Millicent Johnnie’s “Algoda Reggae” blew a much-needed seafoam breeze into the theater. A medley of wave sound samples and modern reggae music inspired this piece. Set in the remote paradisic Brazilian fishing island of Algodoal, known for its rich reggae scene, the dancers, costumed in casual rasta-esque beachwear, perform in pairs. Lively samba steps get elongated into a dreamy reggae beat, all hip isolations and sensuality. Though refreshing, this piece echoed the same lack of chemistry from the previous one, some couples unconvinced in their execution.

Luckily, the show finished strong. “House of Tears,” from Donald McKayle, dealt with the Argentine Dirty War of the 70s and 80s, a period wherein state-sanctioned death squads systematically killed thousands of Argentine communist guerillas, a mass of dead known collectively as “the Disappeareds.” Strong political overtones and a cinematic score from Astor Piazzola, with the talents of principal soloist student dancers, created an overture that was compelling, engaging, and visceral.

Emma Walsh, Carl Cubera and Kristy Dai performed beautifully, with depth and charisma. Especially unnerving, putting this finale over the top, was the set design, which had massive portraits of victims gazing right at the audience.

A wide range is sure to appeal to almost everyone, but the pacing and confusingly academic explorations privilege the learned few. All in all, despite questionable artistry, Dance Visions is undoubtedly a staple, professional showcase of Anteater talent.

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