It's always heartening when the big presenters of internationally recognized performers support homegrown talent. Over the weekend, World Music/CRASHarts presented Betsi Graves's six-year-old Urbanity Dance in the troupe's biggest engagement of its career, a compelling, if uneven concert at the Institute of Contemporary Art called "Bend."
According to Graves's program notes, the show's title refers to "recurring ideas of light, what is hidden, what is seen." And indeed, in the program's first half, light was a major player, not just framing movement but motivating it, with splashes of illumination seeming to set sequences into motion. The evening's world premiere and most substantial work, "They Fell," is a collaboration between company artistic director Graves, composer Ryan Edwards, and video designer Jeremy Stewart. Graves set the work for seven dancers (fabulous technicians all) in seven sections, each preceded by a recurring series of blackouts. Lights on, the dancers are upright. Blackout, lights on, the dancers flop to the floor, body parts thunking noisily.
The work suggests a community in flux. Gestures that punch, thrust, and slice hint at anger, determination, strength. Off-center balances and vivid lifts that send dancers tumbling end over end betray vulnerability. Group unisons and carefully crafted patterns break into bursts of independent activity characterized by luxurious shifts of weight, sharp isolations, and twitches. Acrobatic rolls to the floor spring back up time after time.
With each blackout series, we see one less dancer onstage, winnowing finally to Brian Washburn, and here's where Stewart's video lighting design really gets eye-popping. At first, the lighted floor is uniformly dappled. But as the robust, muscular Washburn moves through capoeira-like tumbles and balances, he seems to create currents of air that push the dappling aside, like ashes blown by the wind. It's a stunning effect.
"Photo Box D," by Houston choreographer Andy Noble, uses light to hide as much as to illuminate, shocking our eyes with the glare of six brilliant white light boxes while making us strain to discern what's happening in the shadows. The work opens in darkness, with periodic flashes spotlighting body parts as one dancer manipulates another. We're in the dark so long that when the line of light boxes across the stage burst on, it's actually assaulting. But as we adjust, we see bodies spilling out from the dark shadows behind the boxes. Bodies with quivering limbs posture in front of the lights, creating silhouettes, or they seem to soar from the lighted stage into a dark abyss. It's a visually captivating set up that ends with a bit a playful shadow play upon the back wall.
The program's second half was less engaging. In addition to "They Fell," Graves also contributed the Boston premiere of "hi, how r u? can u enable me 2 enable u again? k thx bye." Despite the title's tease, this reworking of a piece from 2012 seemed a little aimless and unfocused, as six dancers repeatedly created a layered sculptural shape, then broke apart.
Pilobolus's classic quartet "Ocellus," collaboratively choreographed in 1972 for four men and set to an atmospheric score of echo-y underwater sounds, was impressively performed for the very first time with two men and two women (Meghan Anderson, Jamie Lovell, Jacob Regan, and Washburn). A slow-moving sculpture of convoluted stretches, extensions, and balances that showcase the dancers' strength, control, and flexibility, it looks a little tired after all these years.
With its comical skitters and quickly shifting floor patterns, "(R)evolve," by Keigwin + Company's Jaclyn Walsh, was a delightful antidote to the preceding darkness. Viscerally gratifying, there was a lush roundness to the choreography for six women — circular phrases with spins and spirals, arms and legs arcing up and around, flowing skirts swirling.