- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

Phoenix Dance Theatre, a leading English modern dance group based not in London, but 200 miles to the north in Leeds, blew into town for four performances that concluded over the weekend.

Although the company is celebrating its 25th season, in reality, its present lustrous incarnation has existed only since Darshan Singh Bhuller became artistic director four years ago. He chose the present remarkable group of dancers and revamped the entire repertoire, commissioning new pieces and introducing important revivals.

Presented jointly by the Washington Performing Arts Society and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, the first program included a revival of “Forest,” a 1977 work by Robert Cohan. Mr. Cohan, a leading dancer in the Martha Graham company in its glory days during the 1940s and ‘50s, emigrated to England, where he became a major player in the development of a strong modern dance scene.

The movement in “Forest” is strongly influenced by Mr. Cohen’s Graham heritage in the heroic stance of the men and the women’s luscious curving torsos. Its score by Brian Hodgson added sounds of nature — wind rustling through the trees.

A standout on the program was Mr. Bhuller’s “Eng-er-land,” a tongue-in-cheek look at popular English culture brightened by the choreographer’s use of light projections. Mr. Bhuller has a parallel major career as a filmmaker, and he makes imaginative use of it here, with dancers quaffing drinks at a light-projected bar, huddling while a shower rains down on them, walking through imaginary streets. Not insignificantly, the dancing is clever and fresh.

In a strikingly different mood, Mr. Bhuller’s “Planted Seeds,” a full-evening work performed Friday and Saturday, tackled the subject of war, a choreographic land mine. There are so many pitfalls to avoid — mounting a polemic, preaching to the choir, falling into platitudes, shamelessly playing with emotions.

Mr. Bhuller managed to avoid almost all of that, relying on the power of dance and an astutely chosen score to create a searing picture of the human cost of war. Not just any war. By choosing as his subject the war in Yugoslavia, he focused not on the impersonality of large wars and military devastation, but on the human cost — long-standing ties between neighbors who have lived and worked together give way to suspicion and, eventually, inconceivable atrocities.

The astutely chosen score was a clue to the conflicting scene, using songs by U2, the Third Symphony by Henryck Gorecki, Yugoslavian folk music, a Muslim call to prayer, Russian liturgical chants and “War” and “Sheva” by Sarajevo composer Goran Bregovic.

The lighting and staging — characters entered and left through an ominous opening at the back right of the stage sometimes brightly lit and belching smoke — contributed to a sense of foreboding. The dancers’ aerobic strength and acrobatic skills were called on to tell a story that interspersed brief moments of fellowship with stinging acts of cruelty. The audience brings its own images of that earlier conflict and the subsequent “ethnic cleansing” that continues to surface around the world.

The strong women in the company give a vivid picture of lives caught up and degraded by those conflicts. A figure hanging helplessly from a trapeze creates an indelible image of a woman reduced to suicide by the brutality she has encountered.

A couple, clearly considered as ill-matched as the Capulets and Montagues, approach each other shyly, even warily, and then the bliss of romantic entanglement overtakes them; at the end, they clasp each others’ bodies, reminding us that the ancient plight of Romeo and Juliet lives on today.

Through all this, Mr. Bhuller’s inspired dance imagery gives the work its poetic power — that and the performance of its heroically dedicated, wonderfully multiethnic group of dancers.

***

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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