Spirits in the Night

Director Janis Valdes has staged Levin's script with intelligence and taste. Even within the limited space of the Jewish Community Center's studio theater, though, Patti Walley's set is almost too simple, only skimpily reflecting the text'scontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pagedescription of the mahogany splendors of the old synagogue. But this is a minor distraction among the many pleasures of Cantorial.

-- Bob Wilcox

WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY DANCE THEATRE
Washington University Performing Arts Department

Clothed in a gleaming dress -- close-fitted to the hips, then opening into a full skirt -- the young woman who takes the first solo in a dance suite made from Jose Limon's "A Dance Offering" enters the midst of five more women costumed similarly but in different colors. Her free, open movements (arms away from the trunk, head held high, lots of bounding) seem like conventional modern-dance expressions of joy. Her companions, however, move with eccentric steps -- joyful still, but suggestive here of a limp, there of hobbling. It is obviously Limon's choreography: The six dancers on the stage never crowd one another. When they are all doing the same step, one admires the discipline and the simultaneity of careful rehearsal, marvels at the way the often strange steps (sometimes graceless, even ugly) become absolutely the only possible corporeal reaction to Bach's "Musical Offering," the basis of the dance, as they make visible the subtlety of Bach's dissonances in the midst of an harmonic whole.

When 14 dancers appear to close the suite, the choreography seems to expand the Edison Theatre stage so much that the 14, dancing in two groups of four and two of three, have their own palpable spaces. When they intersect, it's like racing sailboats -- the whole is made up of discrete parts, yet has a unity that all the discrete motion only enhances.

An anonymous donor arranged with the Jose Limon Dance Foundation for the right to perform the choreography and for a Limon-trained director, Pamala Jones-Malave, to stage the work. But great choreography and professional direction must have dancers capable of performing the work. Wash U.'s dance students were prepared to undertake the work, and their success with it is a credit to their teachers and their university. These same teachers made the other five pieces performed last weekend, and they range from the cheerful jazz dancing of Mary-Jean Cowell's "Primal Axis" and Christine O'Neal's "Mood ... and Another Mood" to another O'Neal piece, "The Glass Company," an unlikely but elegant combination of Philip Glass and toe shoes. Two extended abstractions -- David Marchant's spiritual, even prayerful "Nos in Unum," which closed the evening's first half, and Robin Wilson's wide-ranging, scarily cheerful "treemountainriver," which closed the second -- were further proof that the dancers had become comfortable with success.

I am generally uncomfortable with dance set to liturgical music, but Marchant did more than simply respect the Gregorian chant and polyphony as music; he responded to the words of worship in the text. The dancers -- five women and one man, clad in handsome, flowing, heavy sea-green silk trousers and tunics -- seemed powerful but controlled as the nun in contemplation that Wordsworth compares to a flag stretched taut in the wind. Henry Claude, Sherry Olander and Adam Rugo performed Wilson's "treemountainriver," with music by Wilson herself and Stephen Rush. The 13 dancers, however, made plenty of musical noise themselves, not only by clicking rocks together but by chanting and even whooping. The dance itself was fast and unrelenting, athletic -- action, in other words, instead of contemplation.

Bonnie Kruger was responsible for the superb costuming; Rick Kuykendall's lighting made the dancing even more vivid and impressive. Washington University's Dance Theatre performance was everywhere surprising, highly entertaining and admirable -- both dancers and dance pedagogues presenting themselves in a most becoming light.

-- Harry Weber

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
By Phillip Barry
Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University

When Phillip Barry argues the case for the value of his upper-class characters, he's tediously unconvincing. When he just lets them live -- gracefully, graciously, intelligently, wittily -- they need no more justification than does a butterfly or a rose.

The Webster University Conservatory's production of Barry's The Philadelphia Story advances Barry's case brilliantly. Scott C. Neale's handsome, ingenious sets give director James Saba playing areas that he uses shrewdly to sort out the play's shifting alliances. Sylvia Burton's costumes show us 1939's fashions at their most attractive, graced by Kyle D. Weidner's lights.

Saba's student cast plays Barry's high comedy as if to the manner born. Self-possessed Susan E. Scott's Tracy Lord erases all thoughts of Katharine Hepburn. Among the men in her life, Ashley Green is properly smug as Tracy's big-businessman fiance. Matt McGaughey, playing a tough-skinned, soft-hearted journalist, takes a while to find the right tone -- a tone that Angela Davis, as his partner, hits immediately -- and Matt Huffman takes even longer to bring out the confident charm of Tracy's once and future husband. John Daniel Kinnaird as droll Uncle Willie and Angela Marie Smith, utterly convincing as Tracy's mother, impress with their playing of older people. In these hands, The Philadelphia Story once again charms and delights.

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