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Leaping into spring: PearsonWidrig DanceTheater.

Change in the Weather
By Mae G. Banner

PearsonWidrig DanceTheater
Skidmore College Dance Theater, Feb. 25

Sound and silence have equal weight in Thaw, an hour-long exploration of winter cracking into spring that was previewed last Friday at the Skidmore College Dance Theater by PearsonWidrig DanceTheater. A work in progress, the dance will have its official premiere next week at New York City’s Duke Theater on 42nd Street.

More than a dance, Thaw is a journey to ice-bound places. The five dancers merge their leaps and thudding falls with archival film footage of Shackelton’s 1914 Antarctica expedition and of the clunky ice-harvesting operation on a Maine pond, circa 1940s. The sound of rushing water fills the space. Everything is in black and white, cold light and long, horizontal shadows.

The first thing we see is a row of eight square metal pans lined up on a length of black plastic set along the boundary between the dancing ground and the audience. Each pan holds a block of ice. I thought, “Well, we will see this ice melt, drop by drop, through the course of this dance.”

Instead, Sarah Pearson, bundled up for winter and pulling a small antique sled, stomps fiercely, but deliberately, through the center of every other pan, smashing through the ice with her mighty boot. Great chunks are up-ended, creating new angled shapes to frame the dance.

Later, the other dancers will make short work of the ice in the remaining pans, jumping barefoot and landing hard.

Pearson and Widrig are partial to site-specific dances and to populist collaborations in small communities, such as their recent work in Lewiston, Maine. That’s where they learned of the ice- harvesting documentary film that Widrig edited to alternate with Shackelton’s ice-cutting sailboat as the backdrop for Thaw.

This company is nothing if not quirky. The dancers become part of the harvest, leaping and scootching to get out of the way of the circular blade, the loggers’-style sharp-toothed saw, and the crude conveyer belt that lifts blocks of ice onto the boat. All this to the dreamy reeds of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” and the sloshing sounds of moving water.

The dancers, who’ve been working on Thaw during their three-week residency at Skidmore and Emma Willard School in Troy, treat this stage as a specific site. Their improv-based movement relies on the theater’s back wall of painted white cinder blocks that catch and hold the changes of light from dead winter to the ferocious start of spring. The dancers, especially tall, lean Matthew Rogers, do head-rolls and foot-rolls against the wall. They walk tight along it as if magnetized, or run hard and walk a few steps up it.

When they’re not up against the wall, the dancers, including Widrig, Lindsay Gilmour, and Tzveta Kassabova, fall. Hard. A lot. Though they also perform animal-like leaps and stretches, skitter along on their butts, or turn and turn on one foot like the white water eddying on film behind them, and though they contrast freshets of manic movement with pools of stillness, their dance is mostly about falling.

It’s also about change. Pearson, who grew up in Minnesota, told the audience in a post-performance Q&A that she’s always been fascinated with how the slow, under-the-surface warming of winter suddenly smashes open into spring.

In their movement, the dancers are the ice and water. When spring breaks through, in the form of a box of green grass that Pearson carries on, their movements become more energetic, bigger, with freer jumps.

Thaw grows on you. The dance—an ingenious meld of movies and movement, motion and stillness, glassy white and tender green, silly props and serious ideas—keeps opening up in your mind long after the stage goes dark. Like spring.

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