Observations from the 2nd annual Kansas City Dance Festival

In only a year and a half, the founders of the Kansas City Dance Festival have made good on a promise: it is officially annual.

Last weekend was the second year, and the growth between the two is impressive. While no handsome percussionists took the stage this year (all pre-recorded music, alas), the programming and performance built on their initial success. It wasn’t flawless then, nor was it this year, but projections are positive and the inchoate festival shows impressive potential, with the goal to incrementally include everybody in Kansas City – that’ll be quite the event.

Co-artistic directors/founders Anthony Krutzkamp and Logan Pachciarz organized a well-rounded presentation for local dance enthusiasts, mostly contemporary ballet, but a few classical choices, too. And it was all about the dance, with no set props, relying on lighting for mood. They expanded their reach with choreographers (mostly young) and dancers from companies as near as Oklahoma and far as Estonia.

Most of the dancers, though, were from the Kansas City Ballet and it’s informative seeing these familiar performers in different, more intimate roles, far closer to the audience in the Spencer Theater than in the Kauffman Theater.

I was completely absorbed by Molly Wagner’s performance in Todd Bolender’s “The Still Point,” presented as offering to the beloved, belated artistic director’s 100th birthday, in addition to being a force and inspiration for Kansas City dance for decades, the dedicatee for this event.

Despite an extended musical introduction, leaving the audience staring at a blank stage, the piece was worth its press. A sort of sister-wivesian scenario, with the women (Kaleena Burks and Tempe Ostergren) initially rejecting their suitors (Geoffrey Kropp and Craig Hall), but then pairing up, leaving Wagner the rejected 5th wheel, mocked and humiliated. She performed with an intensity of psychological distress, slowly raising her hands in a visual scream. She seemed appropriately wary when her suitor appeared (Pachciarz) and the emotional change was marked by the beautiful variety from their clasping hands. A final pose, reaching for each other, was incredibly moving (marred only by the tuning of the recording, egads).

Equally stunning was a guest artist to the festival, Abigail Sheppard, who performed the solo in Marco Goecke’s “Mopey,” set to C.P.E. Bach intricate string lines. Typically performed by men, she made this muscular, peculiar piece wholly her own. Goecke presents an absurd amount of awkward movement at frantic pace, breaking up the 14 minute solo with interesting exit moments, like full-armed alligator snaps or a gesture that suggested pulling at a Pinocchio-esque nose. Fingers played an important role, as she tickled her own side, or contorted her arms behind her back, fingers wiggling, awkwardly shuffling herself across the floor. Elements of self-flagellation diffused some of these funnyish moments, garnishing the piece with an uncomfortable level of distress, a semi-helpless floppiness, ending with a theatrical, but well-deserved, tremendous breathe out.

She also performed the Adagio from Marina Kesler’s “Othello” with the adonic Gabriel Davidsson. They had a sculptural connection, even when separated by distance and the dark between the spotlights, mirroring, breathing together. Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” was a poignant set choice, downbeats infused with affecting isolation.

There were local choreographers, as well. The Owen/Cox Dance Group (also sponsors of the festival) performed Jennifer Owen’s Long Day/Good Night, with original music from Brad Cox. The extended, layered lines in the music were enunciated by the dancers’ elongated, solitary, incredibly flexed movements, showing a fair amount of individuality, yet connectivity, from Michael Davis, Betty Kondo, Owen and Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye. It was a different sort of muscularity then we’d seen in “Mopey,” a nice contrast. A penetrating cymbal rhythm indicated an increased energy and the dancers partnered up, moving within each other’s delicately cupped arms. Arcing back to the original tempo, the dual over-the-head lifts were poised, set against dawn-like lighting, completed by a beautiful final pose.

Krutzkamp presented his “Troisième Roue,” playing with silhouette and sharp, birdlike movements. It was high energy, with twirls, crisp drops, convulsive gestures and jutted leg work — a fun, stimulating trio from Hall, Burks and Yoshiya Sakurai, with lots of quick asides I want to see again.

They also choose two classical pas de deux, in all their virtuosic glory: Vainonen’s “Flames of Paris” and Petipa’s cave pas de deux from “La Corsaire.” While impressive, these sorts of pieces either work or not – the emotional quality is not of first importance, typically, especially outside the context of the larger work. Here, the dancers – Laura Hunt and Alexander Peters, Yumelia Garcia and Lucas Segovia, respectively – executed their leaps and jumps and turns admirably, especially the twenty-six pirouettes from Hunt. Garcia and Segovia paired sweetly, with graceful lifts.

A set of Jonny Cash covers in Chris Stuart’s “Under the Lights” brought out all the smiles for the flirtatious, infectious performance from Mark Allyn Nimmo, Kennan McLaren, Kayla Rowser and Jon Upleger. The first portion, laced with feedback-y guitar riffs, was sexy, fierce, the dancers really gripping each other in dramatic drop catches. I loved their expressions, too, and hammy little gestures, like the cheeky full-on kiss (and cute reaction) or how Rowser fluffed her hair.

The show’s finale featured, like last year, a stunning, surprising work from Ma Cong, “Calling.” With music from Goran Bregović and Kroke (and here’s my biggest dance peeve – I hate that no one provides titles for the music they use), the six person work was by turns brash, stark and funny, the perfect mix of athleticism and artistry. The gypsy-inspired music, dense, raw tones from strings at first, then sloppy brass party tunes, then a klezmery-tango, catered to the choreographic variety within the work, from hopping over each other, to heavy, sullen movements, a literal “STOP” in sync with the lyrics and then a hilarious pose with the men’s legs angled out and the women framing their faces with extended fingers.

Theatrical entrances from mid-stage and harsh side-lighting added to the unambiguous thrill of the piece. Dancers Ostergren, Wagner, Hunt, Davis, Jolicoeur-Nye, and Sakuira (all KCB) embraced their movement completely, all out, the entire time. Costuming was simple and evocative, with the men in black pants, shirtless, and the women in gray, long-sleeved tops and full, shimmering skirts.

It may become formulaic, but I’d love to see a Ma Cong contribution every year.

With this strong a showing in only one year, the festival’s growth will hopefully compound in subsequent years, becoming a high point in not only the Kansas City scene, but the whole region. Maybe even a vaster reach? Here’s hoping.

P.S. If you missed it, KCDance has a nice selection of rehearsal and dress photos, as well as some great shots on the KCDF facebook page.

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