Dance Review: Dance Theatre of Tennessee presents a visually striking ‘East Meets West’

vinta2Dance Theatre of Tennessee soared to new heights during its winter program on Saturday night.

For the first time in its history, the company included live music in one of its performances.  The program, called “East Meets West,” also featured strikingly beautiful costumes and some remarkably adventurous dancing. The performance repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23 at Father Ryan High School Auditorium.

dttgreenSaturday’s program opened with “Green,” choreographer Hazel Sabas-Gower’s tribute to her mother, who was an environmental pioneer. The four movements take their names from the classical elements – “Earth,” “Water,” “Air” and “Fire.” The choreography, a seamless mix of Tai Chi movements and classical ballet, is set to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The dancing was highly evocative. A corps of five ballerinas seemed to float weightlessly in “Water” as the strains of Bach’s familiar Prelude from the Cello Suite in G major wafted above the stage. Similarly, there were many gentle lifts in “Air,” set to (what else?) Bach’s “Air on a G String.”

A trio of musicians from Music City Baroque – flutist Jessica Dunnavant, violist Idalynn Besser and cellist Michael Samis – were positioned on stage left and accompanied the dancers. Their playing throughout the performance was polished and expressive. My only complaint was that I could barely see the cellist, who was located practically offstage.

It was a thrill to hear such a fine period-instrument group play Bach’s music live. I was less enamored with the recorded performances of three Chopin piano preludes in Manuel Molina’s “Mirror, Romance and Fame.” The amplified sound was too loud (from my vantage point near the front of the hall) and of mediocre quality, which made the piano sound out of tune. Fortunately, the music did not detract from the dancing. Jennifer Drake and Brian Williamson partnered beautifully, dancing throughout with refinement and intense emotion.

dttouchRic Culalic’s “Ouch” offered a moment of comic relief. The title refers to the dance’s final gesture, which you’ll have to see for yourself at this afternoon’s repeat performance. The dancers – Angela Fiorini, Walter Angelini and Ines Albertini – all danced with energy and joy. The dance was set to Peter Breiner’s baroque-style arrangements of Beatles tunes.

The most evocative and exhilarating dancing of the evening came in Jojo Lucila’s “Yebo.” The recorded music featured a collaboration between the synthpop group Art of Noise and the South African Zulu group Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens – think of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” set to a throbbing electronic dance beat and you get the idea. The dancing from DTT’s full cast was bold, contemporary, ritualistic and athletic – there are some amazing gymnastic backflips in this piece. Jamie Lynn Scott’s colorful costumes enhanced the work’s ethnic appeal.

The most visually striking performance came at the end, in Gener Caringal’s “Vinta,” named for the brightly colored sails of traditional Philippine boats. Philippine Ballet Theater provided the prismatic costumes and gorgeous, stage-length banners. The full company danced sensuously to the sparkling synthesizer music of Vangelis.

DTT’s dancers are exploring an extraordinary range of emotions and gestures this weekend. Dance lovers would be well-advised to catch this afternoon’s repeat performance.

PHOTO CREDIT: “Vinta” by Martin O’Connor

IF YOU GO “East Meets West” repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23 at Father Ryan HS Auditorium, 700 Norwood Dr. Tickets are $25 adults and $20 children and are available at the door or by clicking here.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.