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Shapely line: Battleworks Dance Company.

Fit to Fight
By Mae G. Banner

Battleworks Dance Company
Skidmore College Dance Theater, Feb. 21

Too excited to sit still and wait for the curtain to open on Battleworks Dance Company, a golden-haired 3-year-old girl in a lilac-colored ballet skirt twirled on her toes, her wobbly spins covering the carpeted space between the stage and the first row of the Skidmore College Dance Theater.

At intermission, she was back in a flash, but, this time, she danced flat-footed, jumping, running, and doing crashing bellyflops to the floor—all in perfect emulation of the Battleworks dancers.

There’s no sugar and spice in Robert Battle’s choreography. Juilliard-trained and a seven-year member of David Parsons’ company, Battle packs his dances with chili oil and bitters. His choreographic tools include stamping, falling, and pounding, percussive anger at a level to make the dancers’ bodies scream. Sometimes, they scream out loud.

It’s a tough world, Battle’s dances say. His nine dancers meet it head on, on its own unrelenting terms.

Winding up a three-week residency at Skidmore College, Battleworks performed a pair of concerts last weekend at the Skidmore Dance Theater. The seven Battle-made dances, solos, duets, and ensemble works were choreographed from 1997 to 2002, the year the company was founded.

Though all Battle’s dances are intense, they are not all violent. In fact, some have a spiritual or funky-romantic bent. Music ranges from a suite of Baroque-era songs to an echoing percussion score by Les Tambours du Bronx, plus original works by fellow Juilliard grad, John Mackey.

The program opened with Alleluia (2002), a suite for seven dancers to the recorded duo of Wynton Marsalis and soprano Kathleen Battle, who sings glory-filled songs by J. S. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti.

The dancers, in white jersey tunics and flowing white pants, stamp and turn, lift curved arms like halos, or dart their fingers like the claws of gargoyles about to pounce off a church tower. As one brief dance follows the next, their God-inspired ecstasy builds until they seem wholly transported.

His choreography is shapely, with clean variations on a theme and well-placed repetitions. He works with and against the music, so the arc of movement is always surprising, as in Strange Humors (1998), when Kanji Segawa and George Smallwood leap off opposite ends of the stage, backwards. The audience gasped.

Lucky for Battle, his dancers resonate with full commitment to the choreography. I loved watching Jennifer Warren, a tiny, fleet-footed minx, who threw herself completely into the eddies of Alleluia. Warren was equally immersed (and wonderful) in a solo, Takademe (1998) based on South Indian Bharata Natyam and set to the crisp or breathy vocalizing of Sheila Chandra. A codified set of syllables, repeated at accelerating speeds, dictates the dancer’s moves. Warren plied her heels and toes—all thrusting arms and lunges, and long, gliding breaths.

Tyler Gilstrap danced the harder-edged roles. In her solo, Damn (1997), to original music by Mackey, she seemed possessed by the devil as she strode straight at us, arms forward, eyes cold. Battle made Damn after seeing a crowd surround a suicide who had just landed on a New York City sidewalk. It ends with Gilstrap’s face-down crash to the floor.

Battle does like crashes. In Bitter Jig, the last and wildest of a trio of duets called Mood Indigo, (2000) Gilstrap and Kanji Segawa put the evil eye on each other, grip each other’s wrists, and yank and yell until she decks him. It’s hostility in rhythm.

Mood Indigo, with Mackey’s jazzy music, starts off with a friendlier “we’ve just met” duet by Erika Pujic and Terrence A. Poplar, who play at Lindy hop moves, with just a little edge on their kicks. Next comes Smallwood on hands and feet, his body in the shape of a table with his stomach to the ceiling. His partner crawls out from the space beneath his back. Soon enough, he’s on his knees and she rides him right down to prone.

Two ensemble works, Rush Hour (1998) and The Hunt (2001), bear the marks of David Parsons and Paul Taylor. In fact, Rush Hour is still in the Parsons troupe’s rep, a nice compliment to Battle.

The Rush Hour dancers are seven hammers and the stage is their anvil. Rooted at first, they start to jump by twos in tight formation, pounding to Mackey’s drum-laced music. Their movements emanate from the small of their backs, pushing their bodies forward. I could hear the “whoosh” sounds of expelled breath.

Those sounds became full-out yells in The Hunt, a dance for four bare-chested men to those big Bronx drums. The costumes by Mia McSwain were long, black felt skirts, lined in red satin. They suggested dervish dancers or Mongol warriors. The Hunt escalates from combative two-against-two formations to a tightly choreographed war of each against all, punctuated by pounding fists and stamping feet. As the dancers took mock blows to the face, I could almost see bloody mouths. The only thing missing was the war paint.

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