Karen Stokes Dance Explores the Intimate in Vine Leaf Dances

The Setup: On November 15-17, Karen Stokes Dance presented Vine Leaf Dances, a collection of four short works, at Barnevelder Movement Arts Complex. The concert takes its name from the French word "vignette," an intimate character study or narrative small enough to fit on a vine leaf.

The Execution: The concert began with Just Us, a humorous and fanciful dance about the importance of togetherness. Dressed in comfortable casual wear and warm earth tones, the ensembles soft weight shifts from side to side; playful gestures and effervescent smiles evoke a Sesame Street-esque cast of benevolent characters. It's a pleasure to watch. The choreography is interspersed with elegant leaps and pretty attitude turns, but the real meat is in the comical shapes and the amusing interactions between the performers that are reminiscent of childhood games like hide-and-seek, ring-around-the-rosie and playing dead. There is something deeply moving about watching adults at play, and not just on a cursory nostalgic level. The dance is a necessary reminder that life isn't a one-man show.

The most engaging dance of the set was without question Prelude to Three Temperaments, an examination of three wily personalities set to the robust music of Stephen Montague. The richness of Prelude has much to do with the rounded, clever performances of its three dancers. The program makes note that Teresa Chapman, Lauren Cohen, and Erica Okoronkwo are returning to the company as new mothers. But even without this biographic addendum, it is clear that these three dancers are bringing experience far beyond the stage to their performances. The comedic drama of the choreography is heightened by a complex use of hands and fingers, as well facial expressions and staccato movement. The dancers' fully realized embodiments of these three temperaments are a reminder that the power of dance stems from life itself, and that a great dancer uses the wisdom gained offstage just as much as the technique learned in the studio.

The second act consisted of a larger dance piece that examined the realities of two distinct locations. Distrestion is either a representation of a savage past where violence is the lay of the land or a post-apocalyptic future in which the survivors have lost every remnant of sanity. Funny, yet, disturbing, Distrestion allows the dancers to explore elements of theatrically with engaging movement. These crazed outcasts make an interesting counterpoint to the magnanimous beings of Balia, a futuristic utopia where peace reigns supreme.

The priests and priestesses of Balia dress in lucid blue gowns that lend the gorgeous choreography a divine quality. The dance is nice to look at, but only for so long. Compared to the rest of the concert, Balia feels like an unfinished work. It would have worked magically if it had ended with the first video interlude of seagulls and seaside cliffs, but the dance continues, at times aimlessly. Lovely lines are what draw people to dance in the first place, but there's only so much classical Modern movement that can keep an audience's attention for extended period of time.

The Verdict: Even though Distrestion & Balia (particularly Balia) has its meandering moments, the movement is still moving to watch, especially in the hands of this personable dance company with familial chemistry to spare. As far as its place in this crowded dance season, Vine Leaf Dances is singular in its intelligent examination of place and community. These dances create worlds and tribes that the audience wants to be a part of and explore for themselves.

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