Massachusetts Daily Collegian

New England can dance: The Massachusetts Dance Festival gala performance

By Erica Weiss

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Now in its fifth year, the Massachusetts Dance Festival wowed its patrons with a combination of New York and New England dance companies in its annual gala performance.

With a diverse program line-up and a cast of some of the most talented dancers in the New England area, the Massachusetts Dance Festival Gala Performance left the audience in awe. Ballet, modern, tap, and Irish step were just some of the styles represented in this year’s performance, with themes ranging from dark and somber to the humorous and uplifting.

The gala performance was held in the Bowker Auditorium on the evening of Saturday September 20. The performance culminated a long festival day of master classes open to dancers from all over New England, which were held in the university’s dance studios at the Totman Building. The festival, which is now in its fifth year, started in Boston as the vision of UMass dance graduates Yolanda Deamans-Greaves and Karyn Edison. Since its transition to Amherst, the festival has expanded its geographic range to include dance companies outside of Massachusetts, such as the Benjamin Briones Ballet dance company of Brooklyn, NY.

Generally speaking, there was a very high caliber of dance performance presented. However, there were some standout moments that truly amazed. For example, the opening dance piece She Said, She Said, choreographed by Kat Pantos of West Roxbury, MA, was a powerhouse show opener. With the all-female cast dressed in different variations of head-to-toe black, Pantos highlighted the power and athleticism of women in her sharp, high-energy choreography. The accompaniment, which was a steady beat, provided the perfect tempo to which the dancers ran around the stage and jumped straight up and down in perfect synchronization. That power and energy, coupled with the seamless plays in timing really gave the piece a strong, almost militaristic feel that really captured the essence of stunning feminine strength and beauty.

The Ali Kenner Brodsky and Company piece wisely featured dance royalty Shura Baryshnikov, daughter of the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov of The Kirov Ballet and New York City Ballet fame. While this piece was not a ballet piece, Shura did her family name proud in this quirky modern piece with an industrial feel. With a bare wall bathed in blue light as background, Shura and three other dancers performed a series of pedestrian movements, such as the thumbs up gesture, the “okay” gesture, and a lot of facial expressions that gave the piece a humanist quality. However, what made the piece interesting is how these human gestures contrasted with the very constrained, almost robotic movements elsewhere in the piece. For example, Shura tried to spread both of her arms upward from her sides, but before they could even make it to her shoulder height, they were smacked down by some invisible force field that seemed to be present. It was as if some imaginary machine inside her body was controlling her, and the other three dancers seemed to have similar machines inside of them as they repeated this movement many times. This motif, coupled with the music and the backdrop, gave the whole piece a very industrial feel, which was a very interesting and relevant aesthetic to show on stage, representing today’s technological society.

Another standout piece was the Vacanti Ballets duet Hamhock and Tenderloin, performed by the very technical, hilarious pair of Chris Phillips and Jeff Labbé. The concept of the piece revolved around the comedic, touchy-feely relationship between the two characters, Hamhock and Tenderloin, who acted as if they were two jesters in a royal, fancy court. Dancing to very traditional Italian opera songs, the two men would always purposefully bump into each other, grab onto each other with a coy, playful air, and fly around the stage like they had not a single care in the world. However, even in this humorous romp, the two dancers still maintained excellent technique in their body alignment and their more complicated choreography, such as their jump series that looked so effortless and free. It was the culmination of the first act, and rightly so, because the audience needed some time to calm down and stop laughing after the piece was done.

Overall, the Massachusetts Dance Festival Gala Performance did not disappoint in terms of the quality and diversity of the dances presented. As stated on the festival’s About page, “Massachusetts Dance Festival believes that dance… is essential to meaningful lives and healthy communities… MDF offers annual statewide education workshops and performances that are inclusive of all dance genres. Our festivals provide opportunities for professional and emergent dancers and choreographers, while inspiring community-wide involvement.” Based on the show presented this year, the festival lived up to its goals.

Erica Weiss can be reached at [email protected]

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