- The Washington Times - Friday, April 14, 2006

Dancer-choreographer Maida Withers has seen it all. And mostly she has done it all.

She has been a trailblazer on the Washington dance scene for 40 years, teaching at George Washington University, where she is a professor of dance, and founding, 30 years ago, the Dance Construction Company, one of the most avant-garde, freewheeling groups in the city.

The Dimock Gallery at Lisner Auditorium has mounted “Maida Withers: A Choreographer’s Life,” an illuminating exhibit of pictures and videos covering four decades of her wide-ranging artistic imagination (gallery hours and information available at www.maidadance.com). The show runs through Friday, the date of the world premiere of Miss Withers’ “Thresholds Crossed.”

A multimedia work three years in the planning, “Thresholds” features an original commissioned score, video projections, live musicians, and a cast that includes five Russian and Ukrainian dancers in addition to her Dance Construction Company. The ambitious work is the culmination of decades Miss Withers has spent creating conceptual works that tussle with large ideas and themes, often drawing on collaborations that reach across international boundaries.

At a rehearsal last week, the foreign and American dancers she has assembled were a fascinating mix as they went through the opening section, struggling with each other, pushing, avoiding contact, crashing together.

Several said Miss Withers had maintained firm control of the group sections but encouraged them to create their own movements in duets. They talked about how rich an experience it was to work so collaboratively and intimately with a partner from a different world.

To mount the piece, Miss Withers has found a way of working that deals with the lack of support most Washington artists encounter. She has followed her heart as well as her head and developed large-scale works that surface only every two or three years.

This had led to appearances in many foreign countries, especially in Russia, which she has visited often since the fall of communism, both to teach and have her company perform. On one visit, Miss Withers saw a World War II memorial on the Volga where thousands of German and Russian soldiers had died.

“You go up a hill lined with huge sculptures, memorials to suffering, and at the top there’s mother Russia, the same size as the Statue of Liberty,” she recalls. “I took photographs of it, but I had no idea we would project them in a dance to express sorrow for loss many years later.”

Early in her career, Miss Withers was first interested in experimentation directed toward breaking the rules of dance. Then social issues that interested her became her focus.

“When I was active as a feminist I did a body of work expressing those values,” she recounts. ” ‘Woman See’ was the culminating work. Next, I was looking for myself, for a more authentic person. That’s when I went out and lived on the earth where I was born, in southwest Utah, and that resulted in ‘Utah: Spirit Place, Spirit Planet.’ That led me to ‘Aurora’ because that celebration of the Northern lights was like an escape hatch from what we’re doing to the planet.”

She performed in those works, as she will in one section of “Thresholds Crossed.” She remains a force of nature, a strong presence with her powerful body and white hair flying.

“I turned 70 in October,” Miss Withers says, taking a long look at her career. “I don’t think I can ever take on a project as sizable as ‘Thresholds Crossed’ again — getting visas for Russians, finding the money to do it. It’s fairly comprehensive for one human being to pull off. I don’t have an institution, I don’t have support like that because the projects are long-term, they’d wear anybody else out, I think.

“I’ve always accepted that these sizable works, with original composers in the performance, using other world artists, are too comprehensive to be done again in their full form. We can do them again in a scaled-down version; we did ‘Utah 2’ in Las Vegas and toured it in the state, but it wasn’t the full whammy. We hope to take ‘Thresholds Crossed’ to Russia in April 2007. It will be fascinating to see what the Russians think of it, about our comment on American events as well as our comment on Russia.”

About the video retrospective look at her full, rich career, Miss Withers regards it with mixed emotions. “I’m totally thrilled to have the exhibition,” she says. “You see those early works — it’s shocking work and amazingly beautiful. The dancing on the video is just breathtaking, and yet it wasn’t destined to bring us national recognition — we couldn’t get it. And so it represents the struggle that Washington dance continually has.”

WHAT: World premiere of “Thresholds Crossed” by Maida Withers

WHEN: Friday at 8 p.m.

WHERE: Lisner Auditorium

TICKETS: $20 to $30, $8 GW students

PHONE: 202/397-7328

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