- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

Dance Place is a Washington treasure. For 21 years it has been at the heart of the local dance community as a teaching center and an invitingly intimate black-box theater.

Operating all year, the 165-seat center in the Brookland neighborhood of Northeast offers Washington imaginative and sometimes daringly offbeat performances by local artists and dance groups from around the country and abroad.

Two weekends ago, an uncommonly interesting hip-hop group, Compagnie Kafig, rocketed across the stage with breathtaking power. The troupe of French-Algerian dancers, based in Lyons, France, crackles with energy, high spirits, daring flips, dizzying head spins and startling mechanical movements presented with a brilliant sense of form created by director-choreographer Mourad Merzouki.

Last weekend Deborah Riley Dance Projects highlighted the work of one of Washington's leading choreographers, an associate director of Dance Place who has played a major artistic and therapeutic role in the community since coming to the area 15 years ago.

The two works on Miss Riley's program, although different in mood, come from the same clear stream she taps into when making her limpid dances. "Oasis" was commissioned by the Kennedy Center and given its first performance on the center's Millennium Stage last summer. Set to an original score by Alexandra Gardner, with especially attractive sets and costumes, the work is serene and imperturbable, a reflection of the choreographer's involvement in Buddhism and its focus on natural elements.

"Wrinkled Slope" has similar qualities of grace and lyricism, but its spirit is lighter and more fun-loving with dancers' swaying hips and bouncy movements.

The Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre, a black American group, makes its Washington debut tonight at Dance Place. Then Dance Place will present another choreographer who looks at women's worlds and lives with a strikingly different approach and perspective.

The works of O'Shee Dances, Friday through June 2, deal in dramatic fashion with women from prehistoric times as earth mother and goddess and women emerging from the aftermath of the Civil War.

Kris O'Shee, a compelling local performer who has made a strong impression in solo work, is relinquishing her acclaimed solo "Site Visit" and passing it on to Chandra Judy. Miss O'Shee is small, but her intensity gives her a heroic force onstage. Miss Judy is tall and striking, with a fine-honed technique and a similar intensity.

The two women work with focused seriousness. Miss O'Shee, the choreographer, points out the inspiration for the piece: pictures of powerful sculptures from periods dating to 4000 B.C.

The images Miss O'Shee has created in the dance are spare, abstract and haunting. Hands are shaped like bird claws, or like flowers opening, recalling the eloquence of Indian mudras (postures and movements used in East Indian dance to enact stories). Miss Judy moves with stunning effect, her body a coiled center of strength.

"Chandra brings so much of her own artistry and creativity as a dancer that for me the piece has grown," Miss O'Shee says. "It's taken on another dimension and layer of meaning.

"Our age difference is interesting: I'm 55 and she's 28. Because the prehistoric imagery so strongly suggests the female's relationship to the whole plant and animal world the natural world I could say, 'Look at this little figure with the image of the plant upside down inside the woman's body, with the plant being a kind of metaphor for the internal organs of the female.'

"To see Chandra react to those images she is in a new marriage and thinking about having a baby is more than just teaching her choreography. It was also showing her a way of looking at her body that human beings used to have: the worldview that healing and ritual and dance are one. So with my background in massage therapy and interest in healing, I was also teaching her to view herself not just as a dancer but also as a human being and a female."

A group work on the program, "Choral Stance," to the music of the Bulgarian State Female Vocal Choir, was inspired by the same kind of early artwork. For her dancers, Miss O'Shee has turned to Paul Emerson's City Dance Ensemble.

"I think City Dance is the most exciting thing happening now on the local dance scene," she says. "To put together a large work with 10 really good dancers is virtually impossible for an independent choreographer, so this gave me an opportunity to show this work."

"Three Part Invention: Women, War, the Piano," composed by Frances McKay, will have its premiere next weekend. The new work is ambitious in concept and design. Miss O'Shee, two other dancers, the composer and the grand piano are interwoven in a complex way that Miss O'Shee has found more daunting than she imagined.

"This really is an experimental work in the true sense of the word," she says, "but I went into this knowing it. What's the use of trying something that you know beforehand how it's going to turn out.

"Sis (Ms. McKay) and I were trying to invent a way to integrate the grand piano as a theatrical object onstage with the pianist and the dancers. It's rare that a composer of her stature would be willing to take the time to put herself theatrically into this project. She's created a work for tape and live piano; somehow she's coaxed all the sounds on the tape from the piano, the wind sounds, gunfire, chimes everything.

"We turned to the period after the Civil War when women found a new means of economic survival: teaching piano lessons. That brought the image to my mind of the piano in the home as another kind of hearth a place where people gathered.

"The piano is the means by which women navigate themselves through this tragedy. So the piano is the house, it becomes a shield, it becomes a piece of artillery, a coffin, a vehicle for transportation a wagon, a boat, a horse. And it's a musical instrument. The piano is the source, it holds the piece together. It is the place people gather to express themselves, and in that sense it represents our souls."

Miss O'Shee has the piano on casters. As it is slowly turned, its sculptural quality becomes an important design element.

"There are three movements in the piece," the choreographer says, "and the piano gets moved to a different place onstage, so we're dislocated each time, and we keep trying to stay together, to keep the music going, the dance going, everything going.

"Also we're three women in war without our men," she adds with a laugh, "so the piano is our security, it is our partner."

Miss O'Shee says: "I've always thought that Carla Perlo [the artistic director of Dance Place] was the guardian angel of Washington dance. It's amazing what she does for the Washington community. Not every city is lucky enough to have such a place. As a choreographer, it's such a comfort to know it's there.

"But it shocks me that it doesn't get more funding," she adds.

This monthlong run of lively dance events at Dance Place winds up with a 15-year tradition: DanceAfrica, DC, a festival celebrating the dance and music of the African diaspora. The celebration runs from June 3 to June 9 and includes daily master classes and an outreach performance at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium.

Chuck Davis, master teacher, will again lead the festival. Washington-based professional African dance companies participating include Coyaba Dance Theater, Kankouran West African Dance Company, African Heritage Drummers and Dancers, the Dance Place Step Team, Tam Tam Mandingue, Soul in Motion, Sankofa Dance Theatre, Return to Goree, Ezibu Muntu Dancers and Drummers, and Memory of African Culture.

Many events are free. For more schedule information, call Dance Place at 202/269-1600.

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