Warning: This article may contain excessive enthusiasm. Those with weak constitutions may want to turn away. Reader discretion is advised.
Everyone knows that Ashland hosts a world-class theater festival. We also have our very own independent film festival that is well loved both by the locals and by the out-of-towners. But how many realize that Ashland is home to a great modern dance company?
Modern dance was developed in twentieth century America as a new aesthetic for dance performance capable of moving both our hearts and our intellects. Modern has been the mainstay of dance higher education for seventy years. Its greatest practitioners have graced the covers of Time magazine. Yet, a strong modern dance performance is still a rare treat for most theatergoers.
Dancing People Company (http://dancingpeople.com) gave just such a treat to several absolutely delighted packed houses in their Salon Series at DanceSpace (280 E. Hersey, Ashland) April 18, 19, and 20. Dancing People Company co-directors Peggy Paver and Robin Stiehm work individually as choreographers, but share a single troupe of full-time professional dancers. Together, they have built something truly exceptional, a modern dance company with big-city technique and small-town heart. The movement is articulate and full of strength and grace, but completely devoid of the pretension, cynicism, and subtle sarcasm often seen in the form. In their place are an openness of spirit and a sincerity of purpose that connect the audience to the performers and to each other.
Paver’s “Hold On…” opened the show with a warm wash of group choreography. What seems to stun first-time audiences is the unexpected technical quality and athleticism of the company cast. These are not second-rate dancers. The eloquence of their movement, their comfortable partnering, and their range of expression promises a world of aesthetic possibilities. And the choreography delivers.
Stiehm’s “More Immediate Than Reality” is a raucous exploration of the tension between our authentic selves and the phony, plastic selves that we sometimes project in our relationships with others.
“Letters to Tillie” is Paver’s poignant homage to her grandfather and the letters he sent home while overseas during World War II. This series of vignettes had several highlights, including an especially exquisite solo performed by Veronica DeWitt, a playful childhood character as danced by Emily Abrahams, and a sensual duet between DeWitt and Alonzo Moore.
Stiehm’s “Safe Place to Fall” closed the evening with a work that both celebrates and exemplifies trusting and compassionate relationships. Judging by the standing ovation that followed, I think we can look forward to a great ongoing relationship between Dancing People and Ashland’s art audiences. Rarely have I felt an audience so viscerally engaged, so universally pleased with a performance in any medium. Many lingered for some time afterward to thank and congratulate both the directors and the performers and to wish them well in their upcoming series in Portland.
Life affords us few perfect moments. Walking out of DanceSpace into the late April night, still brightly aglow with the evening’s offerings, it seemed our whole world was transfigured into a wonderland of delights. An unseasonal dusting of snow had fallen like a gift in the late afternoon and it still clung to every branch on every tree. A full moon emerged from creamy clouds and illumined the valley from ridge to ridge.
The quiet drive home from the show through this uncommonly blessed town left me wondering if it gets any better than this. Great dance. In Ashland.