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Dance Canvas' Saturday night showcase closed with "Our Concerto," created by Angela Harris and Pamela Riddle. (Photos by Richard Calmes, courtesy of Dance Canvas)

Review: Dance Canvas puts on a joyful showcase of emerging choreographers

There was a lot of talent on the Georgia Tech Arts Skyline Series stage Saturday when Dance Canvas presented its annual program (or almost annual, since  2020’s program was a COVID-19 casualty). For the past 13 years, the organization has nurtured and supported emerging professional choreographers in every dance genre.

Tap, contemporary and ballet were represented in six short works, each by a different dance maker. The dancers’ feet and shoes alone demonstrated the diversity — tap shoes, high-top sneakers, soft ballet slippers and bare feet. Like most in-person COVID-era performances, this one ran 60 minutes with no intermission. 

The term “contemporary dance” encompasses many styles but often features movement that stems from the body’s core, rendering it flexible and expressive (unlike classical ballet, in which the torso is a stable center). Obvious Saturday was the drama, mood and tone that can be created from this technique.

Xavier Lewis and Mary Beth Stinson connect in “Snowfall.”

In the opening of Snowfall, choreographer Xavier Lewis stood behind Mary Beth Stinson as they dipped and swerved, apart and together. What sounded like rolls of thunder or explosions in Lewis’ own score were followed by deep bass rhythms. In counterpoint, the duet exuded quiet intimacy and connection. Lewis executed smooth lifts, holding Stinson in tucked positions or on his back, carrying her, supporting her. The multitalented Lewis has received many choreography awards. Snowfall deserves another. 

It was a delight, and a surprise, throughout the evening to see dancers touching, leaning against one another and definitely not social distancing now that the CDC has relaxed restrictions. Some wore masks, some didn’t.

The intense behind the glass by Patsy Collins opened with mask-less dancers Amber Kirchner and Alfredo Takori standing in opposite corners of the stage, their backs to one another. Kirchner’s arms moved slowly, slowly upward.

As the two danced toward one another, they resembled animals stalking prey, low to the ground at times, circling one another warily. Both were technically strong, but Kirchner especially has a dynamic, can’t-look-away stage presence. At the end she suddenly grasped Takori’s forearm. Had she captured him? There was something intriguing about that gesture, as if another chapter of the story had begun but we would not be privy to it. 

Pedestrian movement was also evident. In Catherine Messina’s joyful Weave, three barefoot dancers in black pants and colored shirts jogged playfully in place to the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” They didn’t wear masks either — what a relief to see their facial expressions, which included smiles and blown kisses.

The piece was beautifully structured. A movement phrase introduced at the beginning was repeated and built upon throughout, between the jogging interludes. Leo Briggs, Jacque Pritz and Abigail Grassier were all personality and sass as the music shifted to The Human Beinz’s “Nobody But Me” and Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life.” It was wonderful to watch. 

Also playful but less successful structurally was Dana Woodruff’s Tethers for three dancers and a bench (Woodruff is part of the Dance Canvas artistic team). Shawn Evangelista, Will Vanmeter and Pritz began by sitting on the bench, leaning into one another. No social distancing here either. Their apparent friendship developed with fun interactions and bold, open movement set to music by Bonobo, Ahmad Jamal and others.

Dance Canvas showcase
The Tap Rebels performed a fierce and thoroughly modern tap-dance piece.

The bench was like a fourth character. They stood on it, sat on it, walked over it, sometimes together, sometimes one at a time. In the third section, they moved it from place to place around the stage. This distracted from the human connection, but the ending was gently sweet. All three of them sat on the bench again; one dancer gently held another’s head as he leaned back. 

The Tap Rebels — five fierce women — performed in a no-nonsense, hear us, see us, social justice tap, made clear by the work’s title, Together We Must Liberate, and the choice of music: “War Cry” by Queen Naija and OutKast’s “Liberation. In their black bra tops, white jeans, jackets, masks and tap shoes, they leaned forward and down into their solos and group variations, knees bent. Theirs is serious, dig deep tap, performed with a commanding presence.

Teresa Jade Wilson created the piece, dancing with Stinson, Monica Battle, Odyssey Wilson and Vanessa Zabari, who founded the company in 2019 with assistance from Dance Canvas’ company incubator program. The Tap Rebels is billed as the Southeast’s first professional tap company and the dancers’ feet carry an urgent message: One of their previous works is a tap-dance film titled I Can’t Breathe.

The final piece, Our Concerto, was created by Angela Harris, Dance Canvas’ executive artistic director, with her associate Pamela Riddle. Seven women stood together, sternums lifted in beautiful ballet posture. Clean, simple port de bras, arabesques and extensions mirrored the lightness and precision of Antonio Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in G Minor. The music then switched from pure classical to Black Violin’s “Brandenburg” and “Overture”; the classically trained Atlanta-based duo is known nationally for giving the classics a hip-hop beat.

That’s when the dancers shifted to a lower point of gravity, feeling the floor, allowing the torso to move into jazzy variations. Soloists tossed off triple and quadruple pirouettes. At the end, one dancer was left alone onstage. She walked slowly into the wings, tall, confident, regal. It was a fitting end to an evening that embodied the richness and diversity of Atlanta’s dance community and the important role that Dance Canvas plays in its growth and evolution.