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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Kanopy's 'End Times' explores chaos and redemption through modern dance
The spirit of Martha Graham was in the air.
The spirit of Martha Graham was in the air.
Credit:Kanopy Dance Company

"End Times," the newest Kanopy Dance Company production, is not all doom and gloom, despite what its name suggests. I caught the Friday-night performance at Overture Center's Promenade Hall, but the program continues through Sunday, Nov. 4.

Before the dancing begins, the audience gets to learn about the theme throughout history. Each piece gets a spoken introduction as well. Though I appreciate the gesture, I believe audience members would be very satisfied to watch the dancing without knowing any of the backstories.

The program opened with Lisa Thurrell's "Prayer." This season, young Kanopy II members dance this piece, bringing it a unique energy. When their backs arch slowly upward in unison, I could really feel them pleading with the heavens. It's obvious they're receiving very solid training in Martha Graham's technique at the Kanopy studio. Soloist Sierra Kay Powell, from Kanopy's main company, emerged from the group and established herself as the star of the first act. Her dancing was exemplary in three different pieces. In "Prayer," she was fully committed to the movement. Her breathing, both audible and visible, imbued the steps with new life, making me appreciate how much Graham's movement vocabulary still resonates.

I'd seen guest choreographer Martin Løfsnes' "What Was Still Is" before. At the time, I dismissed it as "blandly pretty dancing." This time, I found it to have more gravitas and impact. In this piece, a man -- the always refined and crisp Juan Carlos Díaz Vélez -- delves into his past to look for answers, absolution or acceptance.

Kerry Parker's "Pithos" references the opening of Pandora's Box, reminding the audience that hope was released along with greed, hate and all of the other wretched things the box contained. Sometimes standing and sometimes on the floor, the dancers frequently returned to a lovely movement phrase, tracing languid circles on the ground with their index fingers before flinging the arm back and upward in an arch. Powell and Parker danced together, their steps the same but their styles remarkably different. Parker, in pointe shoes, is sexy and unpredictable, while Powell is more contained and precise.

In Thurrell's "Cassandra's Cry," three women represent Cassandra, a character from Greek mythology who was gifted with foresight but cursed with frustration because nobody believed her predictions. In striking black gowns with white accents, the dancers used folding chairs to great effect. With her short hair wild and her exasperation with her plight palpable, Parker was a force to be reckoned with. Tiana Ching Maslanka and Yuko Sakata also did fine work. For me, this piece was the evening's most successful at subtly alluding to the program's theme. It also translated Thurrell's Graham background into something new.

The closing piece, Robert Cleary's "End Times…Ebullient Machine," sometimes felt like it was trying too hard. It combined dancing with snippets of poetry about end-of-the-world scenarios and a score by local composer Thomas Powell. Dressed elegantly in pointe shoes and pale dresses, three female dancers called "Redemption" collided with "Chaos," a rowdy, ragtag bunch of marauding dancers. Though this piece was a bit overdone, Cleary has some good tricks up his sleeve and knows how to create striking moments.

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