Contemporary dance, worlds apart

Anne-Marie Mulgrew and Dancers Company and Yu.S.Artistry present Two Worlds

4 minute read
2 dancers on the floor reach to clasp the other’s hand. At right, one lies on her back, balancing another on her arms & legs
From left, Anya Kress, Jennifer Kane, Olivia Wood Ishiguro, and (being lifted) Em Godfrey in Yu.S.Artistry’s ‘A Flamboyance and a Funeral’ at the Performance Garage. (Photo by Anne Saint Peter, courtesy of Yu.S.Artistry.)

Two Worlds, a split bill for Anne-Marie Mulgrew and Dancers Co. (AMM & DCO) and Yu.S.Artistry, featured new works from both companies. AMM & DCO, an experimental modern dance troupe based in Philadelphia, responded to global violence with A Shout from the Bones. Yu.S.Artistry, a professional dance ensemble based in Bucks County, explored more fanciful territory with two works.

Yu.S.Artistry artistic director Yuki Ishiguro drew from Japanese folklore in Dream of A…, and assistant artistic director Olivia Wood Ishiguro’s A Flamboyance and a Funeral focused on the first element of its title. Altogether, the works from both companies reflected a range of topics and approaches in contemporary dance by taking different looks at distinct worlds.

Flamboyance, funeral, and folklore

A Flamboyance and a Funeral began the program with energetic movement and an impressive lift. Em Godfrey was mesmerizing as they articulated their body with liquid precision. Dancers maintained contact between their bodies during a sequence set to BJ Thomas’s song “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head”. At times, arm movements evoked breakdance. The work concluded with the funeral scene mentioned in its title, and dancers formed mourning pairs. They captured a vivid portrait of grief, yet this scene lacked a satisfying relationship with the other parts of the work.

Dream of A… drew from Japanese folklore to take viewers upon a fantastic journey. This dance is part of a larger work based upon “The Dream of Akinosuke”, a story about a dream journey featuring real or imagined insects and symbolism about sleep, death, and the soul. Godfrey portrayed the lead role, a land-owning farmer whose world transforms around him during a nap under a tree. Other dancers manipulated Godfrey’s limbs and danced around in illuminated glasses, signifying Akinosuke’s unexpected entry into another realm.

Dream of A… was difficult to follow from this point. Program notes about the folktale it is based on would have been helpful, because the complex plot likely is unfamiliar to most viewers. Nevertheless, there were some striking moments. Arielle Ridley was delightful as a kind of moon sprite that Akinosuke meets on his dream journey. Ridley and Godfrey shared a lovely duet. Varvara Busco, Mariko Hayashi, Jennifer Kane, Anya Kress, and Olivia Wood Ishiguro made unusual shapes as they danced with parasols, fans, and an illuminated rope.

The sequence with the illuminated rope was difficult to see, though. Stage lights needed to be dim enough for the prop’s lights to be visible, but somehow everything was shadowed. This wasn’t the only time light cues seemed off in Two Worlds. At one point, a spotlight seemed late to find a dancer on the edge of the stage, and then it only captured half of her. At intermission, the audience sat in darkness for several confusing minutes before the house lights turned on.

Living up to an innovative history

After intermission, Two Worlds shifted to a world more like our own, where violent events happen regularly. Anne-Marie Mulgrew conceived and created A Shout from the Bones in response to our culture of violence “and the need for healing and action in today’s world,” as her program notes explain.

Two dancers in sleeveless black outfits appear to fly through the air, hands up and legs curving back from their leap.
Leslie Ann Pike (left) and Ava Pizzi in AMM & DCO’s ‘A Shout from the Bones’ at the Performance Garage. (Photo by Anne Saint Peter, courtesy of AMM & DCO.)

AMM & DCO has a history of innovative approaches, and the company previously explored recent tumultuous times with Beautiful Chaos in 2022. That work held space for hope and growth amidst uncertainty, perhaps responding to unrest from a place of thinking. A Shout from the Bones instead seemed to come from a place of feeling. Mulgrew choreographs and directs with input from the dancers, and their investment in the work was palpable.

Dancers struck evocative gestures and postures of panic, grief, and pleading in the first scene, and Mulgrew’s fluency with gesture was woven throughout A Shout. So was her unique incorporation of props. Some were metaphoric, like a box and a megaphone. Others, like a purple robe and a glowing orb, became what the dancer—or the viewer—made of them. The most captivating section of A Shout was the most abstract. In “Quartet for the Living” Godfrey, Leslie Ann Pike, Ridley, and Tori Vincent pranced in front of a projection by Odili Donald Odita Mamba Negra featuring bright, geometric shapes. The patterns, movement, and music combined to hypnotic effect.

The final scene brought a return to reality as the dancers piled up the props and laid roses on the stage. Then it shifted as pairs of dancers repeated a sequence in which they embraced and then bent together, sharing each other’s weight to suggest connection and interdependence. But a prior section with Pike appearing trapped inside a large swath of red fabric better captured the piece’s title. The fabric resembled a trail of blood that the dancer’s body fought against.

Intersecting worlds?

A Shout from the Bones, A Flamboyance and a Funeral, and Dream of A… so differed in tone and style that the two halves of the program truly seemed like two different worlds, or perhaps two perspectives on intersecting worlds. The worlds of AMM & DCO and Yu.S.Artistry intersect in the sense that a few of the artists dance for both companies. Two Worlds did not combine into something greater than the sum of its parts, but interesting images, novel use of props, and compelling movement sequences offered plenty to enjoy.

What, When, Where

Two Worlds. Choreography by Yuki Ishiguro, Olivia Wood Ishiguro, and Anne-Marie Mulgrew and ensemble. Yu.S.Artistry and Anne-Marie Mulgrew and Dancers Co. June 28-29, 2024 at the Performance Garage, 1515 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia. and

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