by Lightsey Darst   April 5, 2012

Lightsey Darst reviews Minnesota Dance Theatre's spring concert - for this, their 50th anniversary season, director Lise Houlton restaged a surreal circus-scape from 1977, "Ancient Air," by her mother Loyce Houlton, and other repertory pieces.

LOYCE HOULTON'S ANCIENT AIR, 1973. The curtain opens on a fantastic scene, a circus from Dali's dreams: ladders, swings, towers, two enormous slowly revolving objects that tangledly tickle the air like a great diva's discarded false lashes (all the work of artist Elizabeth Simonson). Dim bronze light (Marcus Dilliard's design) falls with a patina of age over an exotic court arrayed in dull gold knots and tassels, near-nude insignia of otherworldly status (costumes by Judith Cooper). What follows, to the eerie music of George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children, feels like the ballet for a lost Orientalist opera. A queen removes her fan headpiece and cloak and rises to writhe with two eager servants of her desire (their front-tassels suggestively long, eyes hungrily blank). A drone, after a failed mating with a junior queen -- their duet all off-balance reaching shapes - is felled in ritual combat, then dragged off-stage. (Later, he slinks back for a little ménage a trois.) On a swing, high above the action, a veiled woman moves, sometimes oaring her legs until the whole stage sways, sometimes spinning from a noose. Is she a sacrificial victim, initiate, empress? Whichever, even she stills when two lovers sail onto stage from opposite trapezes, their great calm arcs like the strokes of a pendulum counting in eternal time (and, by the way, the best argument for the Cowles I've seen; in how many theaters could you get that loft?). Every now and then, someone slaps the ground; an undulant chorus comes and goes; throughout, Crumb's percussive and keening songs set even still points asparkle. What does it mean? Who are these people? Are they human? Are they headed for a murder or an orgy? When the woman on the swing at last sheds her veils and descends, we know the spell must be drawing to a close, yet it's a shock when the curtain comes down on this strange world still in its mystic spin.

Watching Ancient Air, it's hard not to think that Minnesota Dance Theater (MDT) must have been one of the wildest ballet companies in the US back in Loyce Houlton's heyday. This is what Lise Houlton (Loyce's daughter and MDT's current director) keeps saying -- and by reviving this piece from the mid-70s for MDT's fiftieth anniversary season, she forces the contrast: these days, wild isn't the first word the company brings to mind.

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What does it mean? Who are these people? Are they human? Are they headed for a murder or an orgy? When the woman on the swing at last sheds her veils and descends, we know the spell must be drawing to a close, yet it's a shock when the curtain comes down on this strange world still in its mystic spin.

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On the other hand, there's more than one way to be wild. MDT has no visionary impresaria now, but watch how the dancers in Lise Houlton's Point of Departure play with space. The ensemble ripples; they devour, carve, curve, cajole, explore, setting the center of the body everywhere and the limit nowhere. Katie Johnson springs to life in an electric thrill, lighting up echoes everywhere; Raina Gilliland turns herself inside out, calligraphic, flickering. It makes sense that Lise Houlton's work brings out her company's daring approach to motion; her classes abound in the same sensual inversions as her choreography -- a graceful jump, angled and arrowy, turning to a swing in second position plie, flat and frontal. And, as another dancer told me, "The woman has a gift" -- somehow she brings out the daredevil in everyone. Point of Departure falls apart on the large scale, but close-up it glitters with all the movement invention that Ancient Air lacks.

Jiří Kylián's La Cathédral Engloutie, highlighted on the concert's posters, unites the fine-scale with a compelling overall drama (I heard spontaneous exhales as it ended), and this famous work from the Czech-born master choreographer inspires excellent dancing, particularly from Justin Leaf, whose dramatic gift illuminates the tense relations among the people on stage (lovers, sisters, brothers, partners, fellow believers). But I couldn't help feeling it was a bittersweet triumph. La Cathédral Engloutie premiered in 1975; its beauty doesn't keep it from feeling dated (all those anguished torques look very Martha Graham). MDT has the past down, all fifty years of it; now what about the future?

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Noted performance details:

Minnesota Dance Theatre's repertory spring 2012 concert, on stage March 23 - 25 at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, included the regional premiere of Jirí Kylián's La Cathedrale Engloutie (The Sunken Cathedral) with music by Claude Debussy; a restaging of founder Loyce Houlton's Ancient Air with music by George Crumb (including a cycle of songs on texts by Garcia Lorca); and a reprise of Lise Houlton's Point of Departure set to music by Franz Joseph Haydn.

MDT's 50th anniversary season continues with Carmina Burana at the Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts in Minneapolis, April 26 through 29. Ticket information and specific performance times here.

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About the author: Originally from Tallahassee, Lightsey Darst is a poet, dance writer, and adjunct instructor at various Twin Cities colleges. Her manuscript Find the Girl was recently published by Coffee House; she has also been awarded a 2007 NEA Fellowship.