Houston City Dance Is All Animal in It's A Jungle Out There

The Set-Up: I sense a trend going on in the Houston dance community. In the past few months, several companies have staged, or are in the process of staging, productions that take their choreographic inspiration from nature and the life forms that inhabit it. August saw FrenetiCore's The Rite of Summer, which saw blades of grass square off against insects, and two weekends ago Psophonia presented Infinite Shapes of Creatures, a journey of movement and music through an enchanted garden.

Later this week, ChinaCat Dance will take audiences underwater with Aquaria, a ballet-inspired work that features sea urchins, mermaids and assorted fish life. And this past weekend, on December 7 and 8, Houston City Dance presented It's a Jungle Out There, a program that explored the animal personalities of wolves, penguins, apes and furry critters of all varieties.

The Execution: The gem of the program is City Dance Company member Jaimee Vilela Navarrete's Jellyfish. The dance is not only successful in capturing the movement of jellyfish, but also in casting these common ocean life forms in an awe-inspiring light. Dressed in light blue leotards and sheer skirts, every leg extension and arabesque turn causes the fabric to billow out in amorphous bulbs.

Much of the dance is classical in its line and technique with its abundance of chaine turns and supple-shaped développés, but it's the contraction and flexion of the spine and the undulation of arms that give the quintet its jellied form. The dancers even behave like a school of jellyfish, at times moving in exact harmony, at other times moving in times canon. A duet at the beginning is especially jellylike in how the dancers pulse and react to the touch of the other. Vilela's choreography is smart in that it embodies the pretty languorousness of jellyfish while maintaining an unmistakably dancerly quality.

Another highlight is artistic director Sherese Campbell's Pandas, in which a mother and infant panda interact with another as a photographer shoots the duet with a volley of snapshots. Pandas are a rare species, and so their movement has taken on a slightly mythic quality in the popular imagination. Here the panda-suited duo dances in a stilted, mannequin-like flow, passing through static poses between sharp and angular transitions. Of course, pandas aren't really all that architectural in their fumbling manner, but we want them to be as transcendent as they are elusive.

In Penguins, Jacqueline Coleman and Stephanie Sermas compete in a tap duel and in "Going Ape," the City Dance Ensemble (Houston City Dance's pre-professional company) and Robbie Wang monkey around. They are enjoyable entertainments, but nothing else on the program quite approaches the depth and attention to detail as the two most noteworthy pieces.

The Verdict: It's a Jungle Out There made for a nice family-friendly concert, but the bulk of the choreography was contemporary dance-lite. I was intrigued by Campbell's opening video sequence, which juxtaposed the nature of animals that are cared for with the decrepit conditions of those who are not. She positioned It's a Jungle Out There to be a strong anti-animal abuse concert, but the dances did little to inspire a call to action on behalf of our four-legged friends.

The final piece, Elephant Poachers portrays the blood-lust of those who destroy such majestic creatures for their ivory. The dance is strong, but where are the elephants? I wanted to be moved to a greater empathy for these gentle giants, but again, the choreography merely reflects happenings in the Animal Kingdom and does not attempt a deeper analysis of the interactions between humans and other life forms.

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