Review: George Mason University School of Dance Gala Concert

On stage March 22-23

By: Mar. 25, 2024
Review: George Mason University School of Dance Gala Concert
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Friday’s annual showcase of GMU’s dancers at the George Mason Center for the Arts, featured roughly half of the school’s majors in works by Martha Graham, Kyle Abraham, Rena Butler and Susan Shields. 

These diverse pieces were compelling vehicles for GMU’s dancers, its male dancers in particular, designed to show off the dancers’ technique, partnering, humor and personalities. While the young dancers were not always able to reveal the depth and musicality of each piece, their commitment and intensity shone through, especially in Mr. Abraham and Ms. Butler’s works. 

The opening work was Steps in the Street from Martha Graham’s 1936 Chronicle, a hypnotic piece for twelve women. In the opening sequence of dancers slowly shuffling across the stage, torsos contracted with one arm reaching out with the other wrapped around their neck. This simple movement pattern introduces the core of the Graham vocabulary and, in its bareness, revealed its difficulty to master. Many of the dancers looked uncomfortable in this shape and in the subsequent stag jumps, among other movements. While the soloist and a few others were able to transcend the contorted shapes, turning them into vessels for communication, most would have benefitted from more time with the choreography. Lucky for them, some will have the opportunity to perform with the Graham Company during its April visit, and this experience will likely prove formative. 

Drive by Kyle Abraham and This, That and the Third by Rena Butler were the outstanding works on the program, both for their choreography and their ability to highlight the dancers’ strengths. An ode to dance music and the release of dancing in a club, Drive used a combination of hip hop, break dancing and modern dance vocabulary. In the first section, the dancers moved languidly, as if traversing through honey. While this liquid movement quality was beautiful to see, the piece would have benefitted from a wider dynamic range. In a word, it got boring until much later when the dancers began moving with more staccato attack balanced with slinky, legato phrases. 

Butler’s piece, originally created for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, allowed the dancer’s individuality to shine through in often-acrobatic solos and duets. Despite knowing I was watching well-rehearsed choreography, moments felt so fresh and responsive that I believed they were happening in front of me for the first time. The dancers seemed to delight in response to cheers from the audience or in finding a new step or sensation in space. More than other works it seemed fun and that the students enjoyed what they were doing. This work raised serious ideas about being in conflict with ourselves and our different internal struggles, but it ended on a hopeful, more playful note. After intensity and tension it was nice to see the dancers’ ease as they embraced one another on the bare stage. 

Unfortunately Shields’ Visions and Miracles was a disappointing end to the performance. A joyous celebration of spring, the work’s intricate footwork and emphasis on beated jumps felt heavier than desired. In addition, much of the partnering work felt stiff, hindering the dancers’ ability to exude the warmth indicated by the music and subject. 

Overall the students’ diligence came through all four pieces, which is a good place to start. With more performance opportunities and time we should see deeper meaning from many of them, as they’re able to move beyond technique. It is this individuality and spark that elevates even the blandest work, causing us to lean in lest we miss what they are about to convey.

Run time: approximately 90 minutes including one intermission. The gala performance was repeated on Saturday evening with different casts for selected works.

Photo credit: Tim Coburn