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Fun and Games
By Susan Mehalick

Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company
University at Albany Performing Arts Center, March 3

For a regional dance troupe, one of the constant challenges is reaching out to new audiences on the home turf. In its 11-year history, the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company has continually managed to come up with clever and sometimes cutting-edge ways to present itself. The troupe’s latest performance outing, billed as Dance by Chance, is a case in point. It was designed as a fun evening of entertainment: Audience members were charged admission to the recital hall in UAlbany’s Performing Arts Center based on the number on a card pulled from a deck at the box office, and once inside the theater, they were met by the quick-witted William J. Spillane, the evening’s emcee.

Part game-show host and part carnival barker, he explained the rules of the game, as it were, and kept the hour-and-a-half, intermissionless event rolling mostly at a steady clip. He ushered audience members to the stage’s edge to spin a wheel to determine which dance would be performed next. There were 15 possible selections—solos, duets, trios and quartets—most of which were sections of longer dances from the troupe’s repertoire. The dancers provided impromptu drums rolls by slapping the stage with their hands. Once each selection was made, Spillane busied the audience with prize-giveaway games and high jinks as the dancers prepared to perform. Company artistic director-choreographer Sinopoli then gave brief intros to each work before they began.

There was a definite air of informality to the proceedings, and the evening may well have involved more nondance shtick than actual dancing. Nonetheless, the event did offer first-timers an accessible and varied introduction to the troupe. As well, it gave company followers a glimpse of both new dancers and sections from the evening-length piece that will premiere in April at the Egg.

In all, eight pieces were danced. Most were short four- or five-minute excerpts from well-known company staples such as the sensual, watery opening solo from Selchie; a buoyant and cheery quartet from Relay; and On the Spot, a fast-paced, furious jazz-fueled explosion of movement and color from Cliché.

A short sampling of Sinopoli’s signature movement vocabulary, with its lightning-fast rolls and awkward angular poses (picture dancers on the floor rolling up onto one shoulder and pressing an ear to the floor while their bent legs are suspended above, and you’ve got the idea), was best showcased in an excerpt from Coming and Going.

The most intriguing dances were two sections from the upcoming premiere, a solo titled The Suitcase, and a duet called The Marriage Bench. (The completed work will feature nine wooden benches or seats interpreted from African designs by area artist Jim Lewis.) In the former, a dancer sits and balances on top of a thick wooden block, or swings it by its attached handle and lets its weight pull her forward, as if it might be leading her somewhere. The latter featured a couple in a courtship dance, performed on and around a two-seat bench. The dancers approached each other with caution and anticipation, or wrapped around one another in full-bodied embraces.

This evening of mostly light entertainment might have benefited from fewer, lengthier selections. Some of the short dances seemed to be finished before they began. Moreover, by the eighth dance, the program format had grown somewhat stale. The rule of thumb in games of chance, after all, is to quit while you’re ahead.

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