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UW Dance celebrates its upgrade to a department with the accomplished 'Upswing'

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The dance program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has recently been designated an official department. This upgrade was celebrated on Nov. 19 with "Upswing," the fall faculty concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater (with post performance soiree). The festivities continue through Nov. 21 with "Dancing All Weekend Long," a busy schedule of free showcases and classes from student dance organizations.

The program kicked off on a weak note with Karen McShane-Hellenbrand's "Quintessence." Set to Ennio Morricone's pan-pipe-heavy soundtrack from The Mission, the piece was a bit trite and the dancing somewhat tentative. Perhaps the dancers weren't totally comfortable reverentially walking with palm fronds and various greens held over the heads or gathering to salute the images of wheat projected against the backdrop.

Peggy Myo-Young Choy's solo "Boxher" cast Carissa Holmes as a souped-up prizefighter, replete with a light-up wrist band and a shiny satin hooded robe that she shrugged off to reveal her toned and expressive back. At first it was all about Holmes' back as she undulated and rippled to squawky jazz. Then she began bobbing and weaving, throwing punches to a version of Michael Jackson's "Bad." Holmes, like a boxer, was at times loose and fleet of foot, then focused on the attack.

"ETA Movements No. 2" from Li Chiao-Ping had a quintet of supple and athletic dancers clad in shades of gray and black with deliberate rips and holes and an occasional burst of burgundy. I like Li's work in general and this piece in particular. This cast inhabited her steps with aplomb and made the challenging floor work and shifts in weight look smooth as set to the engrossing live music composed and performed by the Weather Duo, Patrick Reinholz and Ben Willis.

At one point a dancer travels over the bodies of the others, who are rolling in sync beneath her, providing a moving platform. A trio performs a lovely phrase, and just as I was thinking that it passed too quickly, they repeated it and I enjoyed it again, this time relishing in the shapes created by the dancers. A line of dancers moving diagonally across the stage jump with their knees tucked up, arms thrust forward, then out to the side. The first dancer snakes around the others as they continue jumping. At the end, petite Janelle Bentley climbs up the backs of the others, arranged in a staircase of sorts for her to point off into the distance.

Chris Walker's "The People Who Came" is part of a larger episodic work, "E Pluribus Unum." It explores immigration, assimilation and identity through dance, compelling spoken word and live music written by Andrew "Phonetic One" Thomas and collaborators. The large cast with dancers from the department and UW's First Wave Spoken Word and Hip Hop Arts Learning Community came together in a mosaic of costumes in bright colors and different textures, some stopping to share a story of their family's origins and arrival in this nation.

Kate Corby's site-specific "Glimpse" was performed in spots around the theater prior to the performance and during the intermission. I only caught a glimpse of "Glimpse," but can report that Shoshana Moyer continues to be an interesting dancer.

"Here/So (12 lines)" from visiting artist Bill Young also uses spoken word. This time the dancers growl, howl, bark, cry and relay tidbits of conversations both mundane and intriguing. At first the two large groups of dancers in street clothes appraise each other with an almost West Side Story rival-gang wariness, but they join forces, alternating between stylized pedestrian movement and more complex dance phrases. Young has a background in contact improvisation, and this piece reflects that spontaneity. But toward the end things grew a bit tiresome for me, although I was delighted when Carlyn Pitterle tossed off a few Irish-dance-inspired steps and upended herself into a traveling handstand, the group gathering around her to peck at her feet and legs.

Marlene Skog reworked the iconic "Dying Swan," and composer and violinist Carol Carlson reworked Saint-Saens haunting "Le Cygne" to create "The Swan," a starker pas de deux for Mary Kate McLaughlin and Dan Jackson. McLaughlin's dramatic entrance in point shoes and black tutu seemed to excite the audience. She is a capable ballet dancer and Jackson, a chivalrous partner, but the piece, aside from looking smart (behind the dancers hung two black and white panels from Dale Mainer), doesn't really bring anything new to the table. However, for a few moments when McLaughlin rolled in a line, her tutu flattened and crunched beneath her, all was forgiven.

Jin-Wen Yu, always a thoughtful and intelligent dance maker, gave us "March Into Sunlight," inspired by David Maraniss' book chronicling a battle in Vietnam and the student protest/riot against the recruiting efforts of napalm-producing Dow at the UW Madison Campus on the same day in 1967. In the hands of another, less restrained choreographer, the work could easily have felt too heavy-handed or maudlin, but Yu treats the subject respectfully and infuses it with grace and stark beauty.

Yu himself pads slowly across the stage as two groups of dancers move -- one in camouflage representing the soldiers and the other in costumes hinting at late-'60s apparel. Sarah Mitchell is especially good, her dancing strong and uncompromising. (She was a standout in every piece she was in, able to comfortably switch styles). Red scarves emerge from the costumes, and we see that the day in 1967 was about lives lost in the war and lives shaped by the war. At the stirring close, Yu walks toward us, struggling against a current of air from a fan, stooping to release red petals from his clenched hands, the red flying and fluttering across the stage as a reminder of the human cost of war.

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