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Flash Review 3, 6-19: Impressions
From the World of Degas to the 45th Parallel with Peter Sparling

By Corinne Imberski
Copyright 2003 Corinne Imberski

ANN ARBOR, Michigan -- Degas's impressions of the dance students of the Paris Opera Ballet School, as well as images of the 45th parallel in Michigan were on display at the May 31 performance of the Peter Sparling Dance Company at Performance Network. Dancing for a full house, the company gave a captivating performance of two very different works by former Martha Graham dancer Sparling.

For "Les Parisiennes," with six of Chopin's "Nocturnes" as a backdrop, Sparling created six distinct solos, each capturing a different essence of Degas's paintings. While the first solo (with a group of background dancers) was performed on pointe, the heart of "Les Parisiennes" happened after the dancers discarded their pointe shoes; only then were the imagined lives of the young women behind Degas's paintings exposed. In the last three solos presented, Sparling was most successful in scratching beyond Degas's canvases to reveal a rich and sometimes darker world.

In the fourth solo, Lisa Johnson performed the role of dancer/mistress in what proved to be the strongest solo conceptually. Sparling, as the married lover, periodically enters and exits, offering intermittent support but no promises. Johnson's solo revolves around an unopened letter that her lover has left for her. While her character is clearly pained by the feelings generated by a secret romance, she also comes across as a strong, independent woman who ultimately does what she knows is best and exits without opening the letter. The eloquence of Johnson's performance was a highlight of the evening -- every glance towards the envelope was a believable dichotomy of feelings, and the patterns and shapes she etched with her supple torso and gorgeous legs carried us with her through this journey of realization.

The fifth solo captures Julianne O'Brien Pedersen at her most radiant. Pedersen is a founding member of PSDC and she excels at embodying and transcending Sparling's choreography. In contrast to the preceding solo, Pedersen's solo evokes calm and contentment. When she picks up a flower to smell, she becomes transfixed by its intoxication. Her inner warmth and full engagement of self made her dancing appear effortless, utterly natural, and exquisitely musical.

The final solo of "Les Parisiennes" offered yet another layer of Degas's impressions of the ballet world. Lisa Catrett-Belrose danced the role of the wife of the mistress's lover. Cloaked in a heavy black dress and carrying a black umbrella, and in stark contrast to the vibrant pastels of the ballerinas' tutus, Catrett-Belrose enters slowly and walks upstage-center. With her back to the audience, she slithers out of her constraining, bustled dress (which remains standing upright to great effect) and reveals a form-fitting black and dark red dress that hints at passion. Similar to the discarding of the pointe shoes in the earlier solos, the dancer is then able to express herself more fully. The wife finds and opens a letter from her husband to his mistress. She becomes understandably distressed, her fury showing in deep contractions and urgent reaches. She pulls herself together quickly (too quickly?) and once again imprisons herself in her dress. Seemingly resigned, she walks downstage, eyes lowered, with no emotions betrayed on her face, and opens her umbrella overhead. Red ribbons falling from inside the umbrella gave a startling final impression.

"Peninsula Part II: Crossing the 45th Parallel" articulates a very different landscape. Incorporating video and live dance, Sparling presents us with images and reflections on his home state of Michigan. This work is part of a trilogy that celebrates different areas of Michigan. Part II explores the landscape around the 45th Parallel (in the upper portion of Michigan's lower peninsula, and halfway between the equator and the North Pole). Set to a score by Frank Pahl, Sparling's video took us on a virtual tour of a forest, a lighthouse, a schoolhouse, an airport, and the dunes of Lake Michigan.

The first stop, Hartwick Pines State Park, is the most powerful segment of the dance. The dancers on video are first seen trudging through the forest in pioneer-like, drab, brown clothes. Onstage, the live performers, in simple, white costumes designed by Angela Youells, begin to mirror their video counterparts. At times, it was difficult to decide which group of dancers to focus on, but the multitude of bodies and shapes also added a pleasing layering effect. The multi-talented Youells also offered the most riveting performance in this dance work. On screen, Youells is seen dancing in a clearing in the middle of the pine forest. Her exuberant jumps, quick directional changes, and start-stop runs evoke both ecstasy and confusion. Meanwhile, on the stage, Youells watches herself on screen and repeats portions of the dance -- but only as a faint echo. Sparling's video editing is most effective in this segment as well. A segment of Youell's dancing in slow motion is particularly magical; her jumps appear as agile and organic as those of a cat jumping off a high counter in slow motion.

The rest of the segments In "Peninsula Part II" are not as engaging, but there are still some fine moments. Especially captivating are the segments in the schoolhouse (playful renditions of childhood games) and the final segment at the dunes, in which the dancers skip stones and look out across the lake to where the water meets the sky.

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