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BWW Review: THE ODYSSEY: AN EPIC DANCE JOURNEY at Carol Autorino Center, University Of St. Joseph

Hartford, Connecticut's Sonia Plumb Dance Company is celebrating its 25th anniversary season with an ambitious original production: THE ODYSSEY: AN EPIC DANCE JOURNEY.

This classic story, bedrock for the archetypal journey narrative, lives on in our culture with persistent relevance and multiple revisionings in many genres. It first captured Artistic Director Sonia Plumb's imagination when she was in 9th grade, and staged a version in her basement with her sisters. In 1996, much later in her artistic career, she choreographed a version on her company. For the past two years, she's worked with her current cohort of nine dancers, a videographer, a maskmaker, and a composer to create a new version that premiered last week.

One hour in length, the show works best for people who are familiar with the story arc and certain episodes from the tale. Each performance was prefaced by an optional informal talk with a local scholar helping audiences to remember what they once knew about the tale, and the program contains a brief synopsis of the eight scenes and two danced montages in the sequence they are performed. No language is used in the dance, either spoken or written.

Notable are several projected sequences, closeups of dancers in slow motion underwater, shot by Helder Mira with a go-pro camera. For me these were both mesmerizing--undulating long hair and draperies and entertwining limbs--and disturbing, as they called up drowning figures in the current refugee crisis, who are trying to cross the very same waters where Odysseus and his sailors were lost so many millennia ago. No attempt is made to place live dancers in front of these images, or integrate them directly into the narrative, but the show begins with such a sequence and it helps to keep the presence of water, both life-giving and lethal, in our minds as we watch what proceeds then to unfold on the stage before us.

The dance vocabulary here is modern, with multiple and shifting partnering, occasional brief company unison elements, but more frequent duets or ensemble work, often in canon. Unconventional lifts are incorporated into the action easily without standard gender observations: a welcome sight. Early on, some postures and arm gestures suggest Greek vase paintings, and some moments quote famous artworks (Bernini, Tibaldi, Wertheimer) but the piece can be enjoyed without knowledge of those references. The company successfully suggests, without undue literalism or mime, wave action along the shore, the blinding of Cyclops, and even (in a welcome and wry touch of humor, late in the show) the presence of cud-chewing cattle. The whole hour of movement has a fluid quality that is intentional but also limiting: I missed more use of stillness or sharp, percussive movement to help punctuate and focus the energy.

The languid movement in which these dancers are most at home translated best into storytelling during the Lotus Eaters section, which is also well costumed by Gail Fresia. For a later Sirens sequence, in which three dancers behave as birds--not with a clichéd attempts at flights and wings, but in stationary mode, nesting--she has created head and torso pieces that also work. Generally costumes are 'Greek lite,' with careful use of color to help us keep characters straight: Odysseus is in purple, Athena in white, Penelope in blue. As the nine dancers move through multiple roles, this is helpful. Both Poseidon and Cyclops use masks (tight-fitting and sleek for Poseidon; huge and grotesque for Cyclops), designed by David Regan. But Plumb's most important collaborator--beyond the dancers themselves--is composer Cory Gabel, whose original score is strong, varied, and listenable, and keeps the story moving along apace.

Sonia Plumb's ambition is notable: she often chooses to make evening-length works on serious topics. In 2014 she premiered PRIVACY SETTINGS, designed to explore the ways technology shapes human interactions in our time. By contrast to that piece, THE ODYSSEY benefits from a well-crafted and time-tested narrative through-line.

Plumb is the recipient of a Community Legacy Fellowship and a National Artist Teaching Fellowship, as well as grants from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts. She leads her company in important community education and outreach efforts in and around central Connecticut; most of her dancers teach as well as perform, and often with underserved populations. They are based at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, where THE ODYSSEY premiered, before moving on to the Katherine Hepburn Theater in Old Saybrook.

Photo credit: Carrie Ricciardelli

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From This Author Karen Bovard

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