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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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In Pillars, the UW Dance Department restages a riveting piece by famed choreographer Bill T. Jones
Li's ferocious "Surge."
Credit:John Maniaci

Pillars by the UW Dance Department (through Feb. 24 at Lathrop Hall's H'Doubler Performance Space) features thought-provoking premieres by faculty as well as a rare chance to see one of the most iconic modern dance works from the late 1980s, D-Man in the Waters (Part I) by Bill T. Jones. The piece has been restaged for the students by guest artist Germaul Barnes, a former member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.

The dancing was excellent on Friday night, whether it was from freshmen or upperclassmen. The program opened with "A Choice of Place," an excerpt from Chris Walker's upcoming evening-length work CREDO. A collage of movement, spoken word and gorgeous music from the UW Madrigal Singers, the piece is unabashedly spiritual. Stained-glass art is projected intermittently, and Shauna Shrewsbury exclaims, "My pupils are greedy for stained glass glow!" while performing Danez Smith's poetry. At one point, the dancers cradle their partners in a way that reminds me of Michelangelo's Pietà of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Walker addresses the theme of exclusion by setting Shoshanna Moyer apart from the group as the rest move together. She thrusts her leg out and clutches it to bring it back in, as if retracting her movement.

Karen McShane-Hellenbrand's Portal seemed a little heavy-handed initially. Candles were lit on one of those impromptu memorials you might see at the scene of a tragedy, and the dancers wore hooded cloaks. But as the piece progressed, it stopped trying so hard to say meaningful things about death and loss. At this point, it was better able to explore these themes.

Li Chiao-Ping premiered "Surge," an excerpt from her new work, Riot of Spring. It shows how revolutionary Stravinsky's Rite of Spring still sounds, 100 years after its premiere. Ferocious dancers are dressed in tattered white clothing. Stark white makeup covers the upper half of their faces, giving them the look of deconstructed commedia dell'arte clowns. Two lines of dancers cross through each other in an X formation. Later, a row of dancers link arms, and the others charge at them, unable to break through. It's like they're playing a nihilistic version of Red Rover.

Kate Corby's Tacit Triggers opens with the dancers turned away from the audience. They head farther away, each very busy with a distinct phrase. Soon they drop onto their flanks and slide diagonally across the stage, stopping to raise their backs and faces before joining each other for a dynamic section where they rapidly bend forward, scooping their arms inward as they step faster and faster. Corby turns everyday gestures on their ears. For example, a hand resting high on a dancer's ribcage looks so different from a typical hand-on-hip pose. Sitting with legs crossed, the dancers caress their faces while starting to rock, creating a self-soothing rhythm. At the end, they face the audience head-on, their red lipstick startling the senses.

Jin-Wen Yu's new work, Fresh Ground, was a pretty piece featuring First Year Workshop students in wispy tunics. The young dancers work well together, peeling away from the larger group to form duos. In the closing moments, they line up, facing away from the audience, one arm around the next dancer's waist. Each dancer looks quickly to the left and right before committing to placing that other hand around the neighboring performer's waist.

Ending the program in exuberant fashion was D-Man in the Waters (Part I). Barnes and the students he worked with should feel proud. They rose to the challenges of the piece, conveying joy and tenderness throughout. The piece was choreographed by Jones as a tribute to company member Demian Acquavella, who was dying of AIDS at a time when the disease was claiming the lives of far too many dancers and artists. But this is no somber requiem; it is a celebration of community and hope set to Mendelssohn's jubilant music.

The dancers, all in camouflage or fatigues, rush onto the stage, jockeying for position at the front of the line. They repeat this race with their arms crossing rapidly in front of their chests, like frantically fluttering wings. The dancers go from chivalrous and courtly to wild daredevils, launching themselves at each other with abandon. Grace Deane thrills in a confident solo that incorporates the metaphorical swimming movement used throughout the piece. The dancers cavort around the curtains, rolling and leaping over each other in a series of playful exits and entrances. They dive across the stage, scooting forward on their stomachs like seals on ice. In a slightly more subdued section, some gently scoop up their wilting comrades. The dancers needed to trust themselves and each other to perform this piece, and it's evident that they did.

The ever-reliable Victoria Iannuzzi stood out in every piece that she danced. Fierce when pounding out a complex rhythm with her feet in "Surge," steely and determined in Tacit Triggers and then gleeful in D-Man, she showed an impressive range.

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