Zenon Dance at the Cowles Center

Zenon Dance at the Cowles Center
Photo courtesy Zenon Dance Company and School 

Last weekend, Zenon Dance Company opened its 31st Fall Dance Season with three works. Although each piece is very different stylistically, all have a political bent. There's the dystopian world of Stefanie Batten Bland's "Caught," luciana achugar's feminist take in "Molten Substance," and Danny Buraczeski's "Ezekiel's Wheel," which uses text by James Baldwin to create a piece about finding common ground.

Zenon Dance at the Cowles Center
Photo courtesy Zenon Dance Company and School 

"Caught," a world premiere choreographed by Bland, features a dismal future where the dancers are literally trapped inside a white netting. The piece begins with the dancers putting plastic bags over their heads and breathing into them so that it looks as if they might suffocate. 

At times, the performers act like children, playing Marco Polo and throwing the bags up into the air as if they are toys. At other times, they seem to be affected by the wasteland, spastically moving their bodies as if sick from some unseen hazardous waste. 

Throughout the piece, the dancers also become architecture, turning into steps and other structures, creating a physical world where, perhaps, there is none. In the end, we see them try to gnaw their way out of the plastic and the net that surrounds them, but they are hopelessly trapped in the dying world. 

The second work, "Molten Substance," choreographed by achugar in collaboration with the dancers, is a bit of a lighter note. Four female performers -- Mary Ann Bradley, Tamara Ober, Leslie O'Neill, and Sarah Steichen -- put on pants throughout the course of the piece and then take them off. In the beginning, the women are hunched over with hair in their faces. They wear their jeans on their arms, and crawl about as animalistic creatures. Accompanied by wild drumming by JT Bates, the women eventually attempt to put the pants on their legs without the use of their arms, and let their hair move out of their faces so that they sort of look like "modern" women. But in the end, they fall back into their creature-like movement, and lose their pants again. It's kind of a silly piece, but it's also charming and carries a message about how women "put on" on their femininity, sometimes negating our natural instincts. 
Zenon Dance at the Cowles Center
Photo courtesy Zenon Dance Company and School 

The highlight of the evening is Buraczeski's "Ezekiel's Wheel," a jazz piece originally created in 1999. The work employs James Baldwin's writings, and is tremendous in scope, touching on themes of death, renewal, civil rights, and hope. With a killer jazz score by Philip Hamilton and Peter Jones, and gorgeous, transcendent choreography (including a breathtaking solo performed by Mary Ann Bradley), the work is a masterpiece. However, it has one glaring problem. For a dance that deals with race relations and the black experience, with James Baldwin's own voice narrating parts and bits of the Civil Rights movement projected, it's jarring that there aren't any African American performers in the piece. 

Jazz dance as a genre, and to an even greater extent jazz music, has a history of appropriating African American cultural forms. It's debatable whether cultural appropriation in and of itself is a bad thing. Certainly it's the basis for most of the U.S.'s popular culture, and if it's done well and not stereotypically or in a way that uses a particular culture as some sort of metaphor for the white experience, it can result in wonderful works of art.

"Ezekiel's Wheel" falls into that latter category, and it is certainly profound. The movement is very much in Buraczeski's own unique style. Perhaps the piece's subject matter draws focus to the lack of diversity, not just at Zenon, but at a number of the major dance companies in town that don't have a culturally specific focus. There may be valid reasons for this, but in a city that continues to grow more diverse every year, it would be nice if our cultural institutions reflected that diversity in the performers they employ. 


Zenon Dance Company's 31st Fall Dance Season

Cowles Center for Dance and Performing Arts
8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday

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The Cowles Center for Dance & the Performing Arts

528 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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