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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Kanopy Dance's Yggdrasil battles winter's bleakness with dynamic modern movement
Yggdrasil is rooted in Norse mythology.
Credit:Shawn Harper

Kanopy Dance Company describes Yggdrasil: Tree of Life (through Feb. 10) as "a program of sunlight for shorter days," and indeed the dancers generated warmth and light at Overture Center's Promenade Hall last night. It was an excellent antidote to a gray and bleak Wisconsin winter.

The performance opened with "Yggdrasil," a modern dance piece inspired by Norse mythology. Choreographer and co-artistic director Lisa Thurrell knows how to employ theatrical elements to good effect. Here, guest dancer Kiro Kopulos (a compelling performer able to convey much with little movement) is a benevolent manifestation of the tree of life. Delicate branches radiate from his head and the tips of his fingers, and voluminous fabric spills from his waist, sometimes creating a lawn for the other dancers to rest on or gather up. He really looked like a tree when he wound the fabric around himself slowly, its folds resembling twisting bark. The dancers from the main company and Kanopy II, as well as children from Kanopy's school, looked lovely in white costumes as they festooned Kopulous with garlands of flowers.

The next two pieces were the standouts of the evening. Interestingly, they were the oldest and newest pieces on the program. The former was an excerpt from Martha Graham's seminal 1944 work, Appalachian Spring, brought to Kanopy by former Martha Graham Dance Company dancer Sandra Kaufmann. The latter was On the Other Hand, from company member Yuko Sakata.

We are lucky to be able to see a local company dance Appalachian Spring with clarity, focus and strong technique. Looking fresh and modern more than a half-century later, it can still astound. Aaron Copland's score conveys the hopefulness of our nation's westward expansion. Juan Carlos Díaz Vélez is the Revivalist, a preacher whose young and flirty followers, Yuko Sakata, Sierra Kay Powell, Jessica Hoyt and Thurrell, adore him with fervor. Velez uses his controlled but smoldering intensity well. In a series of dynamic jumps, he shows us his character's passion and determination. The quartet of women, in crisp hats and demure puffed sleeves, are exuberant and demonstrate a strong understanding of Graham technique. Graham's gestures are sometimes startling in their unexpected forthrightness, like when Sakata cups her hands over Velez's ears when he hoists her high into the air. Many young Kanopy students were in the audience, and it's wonderful for them to see how Graham's movement vocabulary comes alive on stage.

Sakata's lovely sextet, which includes music by Arvo Pärt, was a premiere. The dancers' shifting alliances create tension. While two couples share an intimate whisper, a third couple sits on the floor, and one dancer flicks the other on the head. Five dancers face the stage, each raising one arm in a gesture that reads "halt." The other hand is placed over their mouths, while the sixth dancer is on her own on the floor. With such capable and efficient dancers, Sakata presents everyday hand gestures, like plucking, picking, flicking, tugging clothing, and raising a finger to the lips to shush, in ways that make us think about them in a new light.

Paired together in several pieces, Sierra Kay Powell and Yuko Sakata share a similar petite body type and an unflappable coolness in their movement style, which makes everything look easier than it really is. Their secret seems to be excellent technique coupled with a measured tenacity.

Kerry Parker's Sophia, a smart and slinky rumination on wisdom as a means of personal salvation, highlighted her talent for creating eye-catching movement phrases, and Juan Carlos Díaz Vélez's De Planta, Punta y Tacón combined flamenco, modern dance and ballet. Flamenco diva Danica Sena summons sexiness and fire in every flick of her wrist, stamp of her foot and knowing smile. Seeing a performer like her, with such confidence in her craft, taking immense pleasure in movement reminds me how satisfying dance can be.

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