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Thursday, February 26, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 13.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Kanopy Dance's Antigone considers the horrors of war in ancient Greece
Credit:Kanopy Dance Company

Kanopy Dance ushers in spring and closes its 2012-13 season with Antigone (through April 7 at Overture Center's Promenade Hall). This production, like the two before it, benefits from the addition of new talent, both choreographers and dancers. Plus, the work itself seems more focused than it has been in the past.

The opening-night program began with Tiana Ching Maslanka's "GraceFall," which looks to Milton's Paradise Lost for inspiration. Maslanka ponders whether it is better to reign in hell or serve in heaven. She breaks away from the serenity and harmony of the young Kanopy II dancers Yuko Sakata presides over and then influences a quartet of writhing and twitching hellions. The young cast members acquit themselves well, but I wish some had committed more fully to the choreography. They clearly possess the solid training and technical chops to let loose a bit.

Next up was the premiere of "The (Possible) Ending" from Yuko Sakata, whose smart and subtle work impressed me at Kanopy's last performance. Again she offers a piece that is uncluttered and easy on the eyes. We are told that she thought about how we retell stories and develop our narratives, but I found myself just enjoying the dancing rather than pondering the concept. Sakata is a riveting performer whose use of unusual and delicate hand gestures fascinates. There is something arresting about watching her trace lazy circles down her torso with two fingers or place those same two fingers at the base of her other wrist, like she is taking her pulse while that wrist flaps gently.

The rest of the cast members show just how good the dancing at Kanopy is these days. The costumes -- abbreviated charcoal-gray shorts and sheer, tight black turtlenecks -- certainly don't hide much of the movement.

"This! (Part3)," a premiere from Maureen Janson, showcases the cast's excellent ballet technique. It is set to Mozart's intricate but airy Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 3 in G major. Dressed in pastel street clothes with pops of bright color, the five dancers moved at lightning speed and surprised the audience with playful attitudes. Sets of complex, petite allegro jumps were punctuated by movements such as little shoulder shimmies and hands flapping back and forth like a seal's fins. A turn that evolves into a pretty arabesque might end with the dancer landing in a saucy pose, hips thrust out.

Janson reminds me of choreographer Paul Taylor with her musicality and penchant for inserting quirky elements that let us see traditional ballet vocabulary in a new way. The piece is a real crowd-pleaser, especially when it features the virtuoso dancing of Jessica Hoyt, who also impressed in Sakata's piece. If I were an American Idol judge, I'd be using tired catchphrases like "Jessica's in it to win it," "She makes it look effortless," and "Darling, that was a tour de force performance." It's true: She has impeccable technique and doesn't hold anything back.

In "Water Music," a piece artistic director Robert E. Cleary crafted in 1998, Kanopy II dancers in white pants, long-sleeved shirts and flowing sheer tunics dance to Handel's beloved Water Music suite. They escort Kiro Kopulos across the stage with compassionate looks and gentle touches before lifting him into the air. The piece begins with a lot of unison work, so it's a bit jarring when certain movements don't happen simultaneously. But the sweetness of the dancers seems genuine in this tribute to a mentor of Cleary's.

Lisa Thurrell presented a reworked version of "Antigone," a piece she created in 2008. While I didn't see the original, I was struck by how she told Sophocles' tragedy about ancient Greece in a non-linear way. The dancing isn't bogged down with a predictable retelling, yet the tale makes a clear and profound mark. When young Antigone loses both brothers during Thebes' civil war, the new ruler, Creon, proclaims that the body of her brother Polynices must not be buried. He even puts a guard in place to prevent Antigone from intervening. She is ultimately banished to a cave, and tragedy follows.

Thurrell creates snapshots of these dramatic moments. Kopulos is striking as Creon, mouthing unjust words while ignoring the situation he has created. Antigone, played by the always-excellent Sierra Kay Powell, hurls herself at her oppressors while a chorus of women react to the horrors of war. There is some very interesting business involving the scarves that shroud the women's heads; Thurrell knows how to mine drama from Martha Graham's movement vocabulary. Again and again Antigone faces the audience, one arm reaching to the sky, the other to the earth. Her standing leg is firmly planted while her other leg is bent high and to the side. It is a statement of defiance and strength that really resonates when echoed by the chorus.

The original score by Vicky Tzoumerka-Knoedler is haunting as well. Sections that include plaintive statements in Greek are unsettling, which suits and supports the piece.

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