Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance presented the final concert of its first season on August 9, to enthusiastic applause from the Asheville audience in the Diana Wortham Theatre at Pack Place. But this reviewer, while admiring the company's gumption, felt their performance fell below the mark required for an enthusiastic response.
Terpsicorps was recently founded by Heather Maloy - now the company's artistic director and resident choreographer as well as a principal dancer - who spent most of her earlier career with Charlotte's North Carolina Dance Theatre. She began dancing with NCDT in 1989, and, thanks to her mentor in the company, the late Salvatore Aiello, also got her start as a choreographer there. Maloy seems to be a person who was born for the stage, and as most dance companies' seasons do not extend into the summer, Maloy conceived of a dance company to fill that gap. She would draw from an available pool of dancers in the summer months, and locate her company in the pleasant town of Asheville, which draws people to itself in the summer, rather than losing them to other vacation spots. For this bold and clever idea, she put together a small troupe of dancers and two programs and, by the strength of her own bubbling enthusiasm, attracted enough attention and patronage to carry out the plan.
But like opera, ballet requires many resources to produce the needed level of spectacle. The dancing is the core, but it is not everything. Maloy had assembled some good dancers - a couple of them quite good - but she clearly did not have the resources for sets, costumes, good lighting or even good sound. It would have been easier to overlook these deficiencies had there been even one really powerful dance.
The August 9 program included six works, which was at least three too many. The evening opened with "Notturno," a Salvatore Aiello piece set to Franz Schubert's Piano Trio in E Flat. Either they didn't know how to work it, or the sound system in the Diana Wortham Theatre is faulty, because the sound quality in the back of the theatre was dreadful. Besides being irritating in its own right, this made it difficult to appreciate the dance, which was simply music visualized, and not even particularly well. The piece for four dancers was very mild, with lots of ribbon-like movements, but nothing really exciting or memorable.
"Searching," choreographed by Heather Maloy to "Walking after Midnight" as performed by the Cowboy Junkies, was the next offering. It was cute. Maloy and her partner, Benjamin Westafer, were fresh and elastic, right on the beat. But this is barely ballet. Ballet vocabulary (but no pointe) combines with barroom style and dance-fever moves, and it is not a completely happy marriage.
"Table for One," again by Maloy, at least brought up an interesting question. It was danced by Christine Rennie, who did her best but didn't have much to work with. She and her little table shared the stage with composer Michael Bellar and his piano (the live music sounded much better than the recorded music). But even so, there was plenty of room. There was no reason for her to have been restricted to a tiny zone downstage.
The question is, should there be solo ballets - dances for one? So much of the glory of ballet is in the interaction of the dancers. In this piece Rennie had no one and nothing to play off of, and she just did not have the emotional intensity to rive our hearts with her aloneness.
After this we got eight dancers in "Subway," another Maloy piece, set to traditional music performed by the Drummers of Burundi. The story line has a couple of gang members and various other people treating each other badly in the subway. At the end, a homeless woman saves a man who has been civil to her from a murderous attack, dying in his place. The first half was neither a strong enough narrative nor purely expressive enough, and the second half was at once stereotypical, obvious and unbelievable. Jennifer Cavanaugh as a punk girl and Christopher Mohnani as a gang member stood out, but the dancing overall was not as fast or as forceful as the drum-driven music. To save it from itself, this piece needed industrial strength dancing from the whole troupe, and it didn't have it.
Jennifer Cavanaugh appeared next in another Maloy piece, "The Human Race," a comedic encounter in the battle of the sexes, this time at the gym. Danced to John Zorn's "Latin Boys Go to Hell," the work included some good sequences, very athletic and acrobatic, although nothing particularly inventive. Cavanaugh is a cut above the other dancers in the troupe and has a strong stage presence. She and Christopher Bandy made the dance as cute and amusing as they could, but they could not disguise its essential triteness.
At last we reach the denouement. And - surprise - it is another work by Maloy. With "As Is," however, we get a hint that with the time to develop she may become a far more interesting choreographer than the preceding shorter works might have indicated. Set to music called "Sweatin' Rosie" by Michael Bellar and performed on stage by him, Andrew Hall and Jamie Moore (the As-Is Ensemble), "As Is" was by far the best piece of the evening.
The dance is framed as a gathering of artistic friends, dancers and musicians - a sort of a jam session that highlights the relationship of their art forms. The music is good, and the choreography is loose, exuberant. Solos play off ensemble pieces and the interplay between musicians and dancers is electric. Maloy doesn't yet know how to activate the space of the stage - her designs are very linear and keep the dancers always facing the audience - but in this work she has given the dancers something to do, and they do it with zest. Cavanaugh and Mohnani again dominate the stage.
It is very difficult to make art about art without being pretentious or insular, yet Maloy and her troupe succeeded. In this work, they released a joyousness that earned them forgiveness for all that went before.