by Linda Shapiro   April 28, 2011

Dance critic Linda Shapiro offers her take on the first weekend performances of Zenon Dance Company's spring 2011 season, with particular kudos to the "homegrown, world-class artists" among the dancers.
"The Laws of Falling Bodies" by Sydney Skybetter
"The Laws of Falling Bodies" by Sydney Skybetter
Photo by Steve Niedorf
"The Laws of Falling Bodies" by Sydney Skybetter
"The Laws of Falling Bodies" by Sydney Skybetter
Photo by Steve Niedorf
"My Very Empty Mouth" by Wynn Fricke
"My Very Empty Mouth" by Wynn Fricke
Photo by Steve Niedorf
"My Very Empty Mouth" by Wynn Fricke
"My Very Empty Mouth" by Wynn Fricke
Photo by Steve Niedorf
"Before After" by Uri Sands
"Before After" by Uri Sands
Photo by William Cameron
"Before After" by Uri Sands
"Before After" by Uri Sands
Photo by Steve Niedorf
"My Quarreling Heart" by Kyle Abraham
"My Quarreling Heart" by Kyle Abraham
Photo by Steve Niedorf
"My Quarreling Heart" by Kyle Abraham
"My Quarreling Heart" by Kyle Abraham
Photo by Steve Niedorf
"Elegant Echoes" by Danny Buraczeski
"Elegant Echoes" by Danny Buraczeski
Photo by Steve Niedorf
"Elegant Echoes" by Danny Buraczeski
"Elegant Echoes" by Danny Buraczeski
Photo by Steve Niedorf

WHAT MAKES A REPERTORY COMPANY LIKE ZENON DIFFERENT from one with a single choreographer/director? Well, for one thing, the Zenon dancers may be asked to do six impossible things before lunch one day, then four or five of a completely different nature the next. During an interview I did with Zenon dancer Tamara Ober about a year ago, she said of the company: "We've become these encyclopedias of contemporary choreography. We are collecting information in our bodies of this time in dance. It's in our bones."

Last weekend, the first in a two-week run at the Ritz Theater, the company performed five works by five different choreographers that were encyclopedic all right. Dances ranged from the carefully sculpted fluidity and muscular drama of classic modern dance to an unrelenting vision of 21st-century zeitgeist spinning out of control. We'll take them, one by one, below.

I had seen Sydney Skybetter's The Laws of Falling Bodies before. This time I was even more aware of how much its architectural groupings and tension between symmetry and asymmetry, balance and imbalance remind me of choreographers like Doris Humphrey and José Limon. There is a sense of controlled mayhem and plenty of dramatic heft as the dancers' elastic bodies unfurl into balances or tumble into shapely somersaults: artful tangles imply discord; a suspension on one leg signals suspense; a body hoisted aloft feels solemn, funereal. Despite their street-savvy jeans and dark t-shirts and a gritty sound score of wails and shrieks by Jonny Greenwood, these dancers give the movements grandeur, suggestive of heroic figures engaged in an epic struggle, striving for Newtonian equilibrium.

Uri Sands's duet Before After strikes me as a work-in-progress: Mary Ann Bradley and Stephen Schroeder swoop and lope to the mournful staccato of Bon Iver's music, gliding like ice skaters. They flow in and out of one another's orbit like characters in a dream ballet. Then they part, she walking away in slow motion and picking up a suitcase. When she returns they repeat pretty much the same thing to music by Kid Cudi -- in the end, leaving us with some intriguing noir-ish notes and unsolved mysteries to ponder.

Ritual is in the rarified air of Wynn Fricke's new duet. The movement flows like lava, but is charged with intensity as Laura Selle Virtucio and Tamara Ober alternately fold into each other, stretch their limbs and torsos with a kind of plangent yearning, give succor to one another. Sometimes they suggest vaguely complementary forces: yin and yang? earth and ether? But while subtexts snake through this duet in provocative ways, a central theme remained elusive. The dancers seem like enigmas wrapped in a conundrum, or iconic figures suspended in deep space.

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The Zenon dancers are technical phenoms, but they're also terrific character actors. Like purebred horses given their heads, they show us attitude and plenty of heart.

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I have no idea how Fricke's title My Very Empty Mouth relates to her dance. I could take a stab at parsing Kyle Abraham's My Quarreling Heart, however: it is a rocket-fueled organ that pulsates with contradictory impulses. And the eight dancers who deliver its convulsive moves and complex coordinations at warp speed certainly deserve Purple Hearts -- every last one of them. Elegant and ferocious, they animate Abraham's stylized street fights and rapid-fire gestures with appropriately abrupt, unpredictable shifts of tone and direction. The sly isolations and oozing sensuality of hip hop tenuously cohabit with a fierce urgency; at an open rehearsal a few weeks ago, one viewer described the dancing as spring-loaded, which feels just right. In one section, Virtucio and Schroeder warily circle one another, feeling each other up and out simultaneously. In another, prone dancers lurch and heave, as if riddled by machine gun fire, only they're moving in perfect unison, every jolt and shudder programmed, practiced, regimented -- the dancers' bodies become minefields of fractured images and encoded signals. In a world gone viral, they are both harbingers of disaster and carriers of collateral damage.

Linda Z. Andrews, Zenon's canny artistic director, certainly knows how to program a concert. After Abraham's hard-core dynamism, she indulges us with Danny Buraczeski's Elegant Echoes, a dance that rides every swing, glide, nuance, and grace note of Jelly Roll Morton's New Orleans-style jazz. The Zenon dancers are technical phenoms, but they're also terrific character actors. Like purebred horses given their heads, they show us attitude and plenty of heart. It's great to see them channel the guys and dolls of yore. Mary Ann Bradley's long, snaky limbs go all coltish as she fuses the flapper antics of Betty Boop with the elegance of Cyd Charisse. The athletic Virtucio mines her inner blond bombshell, while Schroeder and Leslie O'Neil spin around like kids on a playground, just for the fun of it. No nasty undertones here, but Buraczeski pays plenty of homage to the low-down high times of Morton's era. Herky-jerky Max Fleischer cartoon moves underscore the punch and sass of Morton's music, while ghostly chorus lines form, which soon dissolve or drift offstage -- reminding us how dance, more than any other art form, is always in the process of vanishing before our eyes, and how Buraczeski infuses even his most ebullient dances with just a hint of melancholy.

Fortunately, Echoes and the entire Zenon repertory reside in the encyclopedia of the beautifully honed muscles and bones of these protean artists. The quality of dancing in the Twin Cities seems to ratchet up a few notches every time I turn around. It's interesting to note that five of the eight Zenon dancers are graduates of the University of Minnesota's Dance Program, and that U of M grads also fill the ranks of companies like TU Dance, Black Label Movement and Shapiro & Smith Dance. That program's superb roster of teachers and the many guest choreographers it imports as part of the Cowles Chair for Visiting Artists have given this community rigorously trained dancers who are also fearless and charismatic performers. These are homegrown world-class artists, ready for anything.

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Related performance details:

The second weekend of Zenon's 28th Spring Season performances will be on stage at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis, April 29, 30, and May 1.

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About the author: Linda Shapiro writes about dance and performance. She was the co-founder and co-artistic director of New Dance Ensemble, a repertory company, from 1981-94.