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Moving in ecstacy: Battleworks Dance Company.

Group Effort
By Mae G. Banner

Battleworks Dance Company

Skidmore College Dance Theater, Feb. 11

A portrait painter may ad- just a subject’s shawl or tilt her chin; a theater director may encourage actors to make their own choices. But, only the choreographer has the luxury—and the risk—of working with living, sentient bodies who provide a constant give and take with the dancemaker’s ideas.

Robert Battle is fortunate in his eight dancers, most of whom have been with him since he founded Battleworks in 2002. The dancers’ intelligence and commitment to the choreography shone through every work in the company’s concert last Saturday at the Skidmore Dance Theater. Battle made the steps; the dancers gave them an extra measure of life.

This was most thrillingly so in the climactic Flock (2004), a big ensemble work that ended the program. Samuel Lee Roberts was the fevered preacher who strode in and out among his congregation, now humbling them, now exhorting them to ecstasy. He was, by turns, stern and possessed.

Roberts is a commanding figure, tall, thin, handsome, and amazingly agile. As he whirled, his long, earth-colored frock coat (reminiscent of the preacher in Martha Graham’s Appalachian Spring) caught the air like a sail.

If a body could speak in tongues, Roberts’ body did. Moving to deliberately incongruous marimba and drum music, he leapt over the heads of the kneeling congregants, even did a full somersault in the air.

There was a constant push and pull between preacher and flock as Roberts whipped each sinner into line by force of his steely eye. They moved with hands clasped, often behind their backs. Some got the shakes or beat their hands in time, signifying they were saved. At last, preacher and flock clotted together in a sculptural shape with arms pulling in and out at all angles in a final struggle for souls.

Then, alone on stage, the preacher was stirred to a set of magnificent jumps and rolls with his crossed ankles up in the air. He had a final convulsion: He stared at us, but he was seeing the spirit.

Battle’s choreography is in a humanistic tradition that draws from Graham, Jose Limon and Paul Taylor. Ensemble sections suggest a community with an undercurrent of shared emotion. When a soloist breaks out, it’s as if the group emotion has overflowed. In Overture (2005), set to music of J. S. Bach, Battle’s design contrasted stillness with wild activity. Two groups of four dancers each played off against each other, drawing our eyes from foreground to back, center to rim. One woman rolled offstage like a tumbleweed, bridging two musical movements.

In an exciting solo, Kanji Segawa, a small, swift mover, spun like a whirlwind, did tiny jumps in place, and repeated falls to his knees with one leg angled out behind.

A group circle, holding hands, broke and slowly left the stage to one woman, whose distressed solo was weighted with bends, contractions and falls. To the music of Bach’s Air on the G String, she flowed upstage, while the others moved forward in a line of affirmation. Everything else had built to this moment.

The program included two duets, Strange Hu mors (1998), an exciting dance in which Roberts and George Small wood, bare-chested, wrestled and grappled, fell and rose with yogic flexibility; and Unfold (2005), in which Shanti Guirao and Segawa moved together, transported, to an operatic aria by Gustave Charpentier. Guirao, a fluid, lyrical dancer, was elegiac as the two danced in the dark beyond the music’s end.

Battle showed a manic humor in Promenade (2005), a skewed square dance to original music by John Mackey, whose compositions drive many Battle dances. Animal motifs abounded, as the dancers made their hands into claws or pawed the ground with their feet. Little shivers and flat-footed jumps were set to Mackey’s jittery, chuffing strings, with an unaccountable tango stuck in the middle.

With a cry of “aargh,” a woman leapt on a man and bared her teeth as if to eat him. Dancers beat their fists on the ground in a moment of mad disport. Men lifted women high, letting their legs swing up and out, then dragged them briefly across the floor, and even sniffed at their tails. So, the square dance, that bane of many a grade-school gym class, was thoroughly trashed.

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