REVIEW: Stuart Loungway at Dance Place

From the DC Dance Journalism Project

Review: Stuart Loungway at Dance Place
by Kacie Peterson

Take what you know about ballet in the traditional sense of the word and let Stuart Loungway rewrite it for you. Terra Firma Dance Theatre (TFDT), under the guidance of Artistic Director Stuart Loungway, took the stage for an evening of elegance, power, and circular pools of light at Dance Place on September 17th and 18th.

Prior to the curtain opening, soft, yet expected, clunks of pointe shoe on stage floor could be heard as company members rehearsed last minute movements. The audience was abuzz with ballet enthusiasts turning out for an evening of contemporary ballet.

The lights went dark.

A lone ballerina basked in dramatic lighting struts towards the audience, her arms bent at the elbow, wrists at her waist behind her back, to the sound of a bird chirps in the first piece, titled Mockingbird.

There’s a slight fog in the air, which accentuates the lighting. Each beam of light is now experiencing its own 15 minutes of fame. Manipulated lighting would become a recurring theme over the course of the night.

I’m immediately struck by the muscularity of the female dancer as she bobs her head like a hungry bird pecking for food. This moment stands out not because I expect ballet dancers to be frail. Quite the contrary. It’s how she holds them that strikes me. Her arms don’t resemble those of a ballerina, rounded and airy. Instead, her elbows are straight, her fingers spread. She slices the air with force. She is the mockingbird.

The piece continues with a duet. The scene changes, almost jarringly. In contrast to the  nature sounds and strings of the first section, I’m now serenaded with what sounds like a low flying helicopter. This section’s soundtrack continues with other industrial sounds, like something you’d hear in a factory setting instead of a black box theater. At one point, the male dancer holds his partner so just the tips of her pointe shoes glide on the floor from one side of the stage to the other. It’s as if the stage is covered in ice.

The minimalist costume design has the female dancers in light blue-toned leotards and barely-there skirts. There are no tutus here. The men don flowy long sleeve shirts and pants. It’s refreshing to see the lines of the body not interrupted by layers of tulle.

The violin returns and we’re greeted by a trio of one man and two women. All three dancers display impeccable technique. Loungway has an affinity for extensions of the leg, and his dancers have legs for days. Moment after moment, Loungway harnesses their extensions into feats that had me wondering if the female’s hamstrings even exist. While the extensions are beautiful, they became repetitive and predictable. Unlike traditional ballet, these dancers are embracing the floor with lunges, contractions and flexed feet. Loungway is pushing the envelope of what I expect from ballet.

A second duet begins. It’s breathtaking. The partnering reminds me of ice skating. The lifts are plenty and powerful. The male spins his partner effortlessly and with speed.  At this point I’m convinced that maybe the floor is covered in black ice rather than black marley.

The piece finishes with a reprise of the first mockingbird. She is vibrant and intentional. This time, she struts away from us and toward the light. Her journey is complete.

The second piece, Chamber, to music by Marin Marais, was an intimate duet that started and ended in a circular pool of light. The woman was dressed in a simple, black strapless dress. Her partner wore pants and a button down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The pool of light entrapped the duet, but they were able to break free as the lights came up and the circle disappeared. The two are dedicated partners, supportive and responsive with each other. As she danced across the stage, he filled her negative space.

The piece is a continuation of Loungway’s ability to choreograph effortless lifts that spin and dive, but never put the audience in fear that a dancer will be dropped. Kudos are also awarded to his male dancers for fooling all of us into thinking we can pull off the infamous Dirty Dancing lift. The program should come with a disclaimer: do not try these lifts at home.

Taking the title Chamber literally, the male dancers traps his partner as he moves across the stage on one bent knee. She (for lack of a better description) log-rolls under his knee in the same direction. She cannot escape. The same idea is portrayed as both dancers use their hands to form a box around her head (think Madonna’s Vogue, but with four hands). Again, the male dancer brings rounded arms over the head of the female, trapping her in a tube. Her arms reach up in an attempt to break free. Perhaps this is a demonstration of how even people with our best intentions at heart can sometimes cage us in?

Circles are a motif in Loungway’s work, appearing as luxurious ronde de jambes, quick head rolls, and paired arm gestures. Chamber builds on the circular theme, beginning and ending with the same pool of light. Both dancers stand face to face in the circle. She looks up earnestly as he puts one finger to her lips. She repeats the same to him. They bow their foreheads to the other, seemingly determining their next move telepathically.

They’ve decided. Hand in hand, they leave the light behind.

Overall, a beautiful display of dance in this piece – both as a duet and as individuals. Loungway has succeeded in creating a romantic work of dance and art.

Stagioni, to music by Antonio Vivaldi, closed the night, featuring TFDT company members with pre-professional students from CityDance Conservatory. Six students dressed in black, long sleeve leotards opened the piece. The students’ serious training was obvious, as was their maturity with the choreography, though their timing was off during parts. While this can be slightly distracting, it doesn’t deter from the piece as a whole. It’s to be expected when working with students who are building their performance resumés. The students returned later on stage in duos and trios, their faces lit with smiles. Internally, I shouted, “Yes! We cannot forget the joy of dancing.”

It’s in this piece that I glimpsed movements more reminiscent of traditional ballet. Arabesques, petite allegro and grand jetés make an appearance.

The lighting, which has been beams of white on a black stage throughout the show until now, changes to color frequently  throughout the piece. From my internet research “stagioni” means “seasons” in Italian. The lighting changes now make more sense.

As a group of dancers cleared, a duet appeared. By the look of it, the woman had her finger stuck in her mouth. Surely, the stage lights were playing tricks on my eyes. They were not. She flicked her finger out of her mouth, making a “pop” sound out of taut cheeks. He reciprocated. Caught in a strange battle of who could make a louder noise, the dancers ultimately move to another circle of light in the downstage.

I don’t understand the integration of the popping into the phrase work.

But despite my puzzlement, the popping continues. It’s joined with a gestural phrase the also involves the dancers licking their own palms, blowing bubbles, and counting on one hand. They turn onto their sides and run as the circle light fades.

Loungway’s choreography contains trace amounts of traditional ballet movements. He’s mostly done away with the poised upper body and brought breath into the rib cage with adulation and expression. He’s replaced standard port de bras with exaggerated fingers and stiff elbows. He’s maintained the long lines of a ballerina’s extension. The art of ballet is evolving and Stuart Loungway is leading the way.

Loungway is a recipient of Dance Metro DC’s 2016 Presentation Grant Award.