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Review: Ambitious “Into the Dark Wood” showcases Brooks & Company’s expressive gifts

It was Baba Yaga in the flesh. Hair disheveled, legs spread and bent, feet planted on the floor, dancer Rose Shields sat on the stage, back to the audience, arms and back rippling from side to side. She turned to show the ugly, hag-like face of the devouring female, one of three sinister fairy-tale characters in “Into the Dark Wood,” presented by Brooks & Company Dance on January 5 at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s. The dance theater work runs through Saturday, January 7.

Rose Shields as Baba Yaga in Kristyn McGeehan’s “Into the Dark Wood.” (Photos by Will Day)

As Baba Yaga, Shields’ earthbound solo unraveled like a tangle on the floor. She spun in crouched positions, flipped onto her elbows, kicked up her legs and crept forward on her hands, her head and shoulders revolving wildly. She dived into inverted turns as one crooked leg cut jagged slices in the air. Creeping along the stage, she grasped the feet of an unsuspecting Heroine (Cara O’Grady), clawed her way onto O’Grady’s back, manipulated her like a puppet and perched on her shoulders and thrust her arms upward in evil triumph.

It was choreographer and director Kristyn McGeehan’s first full-length work, an ambitious experiment for the young founding company member. For the past six years, McGeehan has helped Joanna Brooks build the company’s reputation and attract a strong ensemble, culminating last season in Brooks’ acclaimed “Blackbird,” a masterfully crafted, courageous work about child sex trafficking. But when a foot injury left Brooks convalescing last winter, McGeehan assumed more responsibility. When Brooks announced her decision to apply to film school, the transition seemed natural; they had already planned to give McGeehan a full program for “Into the Dark Wood.” Whether she could pull off an evening-length show was another question.

Sally O’Grady danced the Heroine with emotional resonance, and Stephen Loch made for a slick Fox.

McGeehan’s “Dark Wood” explores three dark fairy-tale characters: the cold, heartless Ice Queen, pulled from a Hans Christian Andersen story, who separates two young lovers out of jealousy and lust; the power-hungry Baba Yaga; and the smooth, seductive serial killer Fox. In each story, a Heroine evades the evil character’s grasp and finds her strength, independence and freedom of spirit.

Potentially a powerful expressionistic work, it fell short due to a few artistic choices: the music and the tendency to rely on jazz dance conventions rather than dig deeper to discover each character’s true and essential form. The music, though written by several composers, sounded much the same: lots of flowing and hypnotic melodies on piano and strings. It gave the characters a glossy finish, and this diminished their potential rawness, power and depth. Certain movements — the Ice Queen’s repeated extensions, a tendency to throw in multiple turns for no apparent reason and oft-used partnering configurations — hinted at some of the “contemporary” jazz dance we see on television competitions. But this courageous, ambitious and imaginative work showed off its dancers’ technical and expressive gifts.

The dance theater collaboration’s elements were simple, spare and appropriate. Christian Vick’s set worked well: barren red branches hung in the upper stage space to the audience’s left; upstage to the right hung a swath of fabric, dyed blocks of teal and plum used to delineate space in each story. Vocalist Angela Pearl introduced each section with a few lines of Laurie Zolkosky’s evocative verse, inviting the audience to venture, alone, into the dark forest of the unknown.

A covetous Ice Queen intercepted two young lovers; she beckoned, rising into arabesque turns, wielding power with high kicks over Joe Futral’s icy shards of light cast on the floor. Her two Fiends (Cara and Sally O’Grady) groped along the floor, hands clenched, shoulders raised, marvelously grotesque, trapping poor Suitor (Stephen Loch) in their web. As Heroine, Sarah Kelly Kerr danced exquisitely. If transitions between some of the more difficult steps needed a bit of ironing out, it hardly mattered; all eyes seemed to fall on her enchanting, radiant face.

Particularly striking was the third tale, of Fox, from the Brothers Grimm. Loch played Fox as slick seducer-turned-murderer. It became a life-or-death situation for the Heroine, danced by Sally O’Grady, in Tanya Geiger’s slinky red halter dress, with beautifully clear poise and emotional resonance. They danced a heated duet to the music’s suspenseful pulse and sultry saxophone melody. After falling for Fox, she discovers his former lovers’ bodies; as he turns into a ruthless killer, she realizes that she’s fighting for her life. In the end, she wins her life but loses her love. Delicious irony.