- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

In a small studio at Joy of Motion in Bethesda, Paul Emerson, artistic director of CityDance Ensemble, is rehearsing a couple of dancers in a section of his new group work, “Message.”

In a larger room, 11 dancers are hurtling through Vladimir Angelov’s aerobically demanding “Axiom,” set to an electronic score, their bodies glistening with sweat. Some of them regroup to slouch and jitterbug and flirt their way through Kris O’Shee’s “A Fine Romance” moving with sassy grace to the music of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.

Welcome to CityDance, Washington’s fast-growing modern dance repertory company, appearing at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Wednesday and Thursday.

Three world premieres and three company premieres being danced next week reflect the go-for-broke ambition and eclecticism the company projects.

“My goal, my dream,” says Mr. Emerson, “is to make this a world-class company. Why do all this if you’re not going to try for that?”

Even in these lean times for the arts, the company is taking large incremental steps toward that goal. It has added performances this year, here and around the country. Its budget has grown from $100,000 in 2000 to almost $400,000 this year. The size of its community services program has doubled in the last year. The company performs for 10,000 children yearly. CityDance’s program with D.A.R.E. is the largest in the country, enriching the lives of youngsters to keep them away from alcohol and drugs.

Next summer, CityDance will perform in Poland and other Eastern European countries, probably Latvia and Lithuania. Following that, in December 2004, CityDance has been invited back to appear in a St. Petersburg dance festival.

“When we were in Russia last year,” Mr. Emerson observed, “we were the only company that was given an entire night — because we were a repertory group. They could bring us in and show a range of seven choreographers. A company that had just one choreographer would only get a third or half a program.”

The director is finding that the repertory format also attracts dancers. “At our yearly audition last spring we could only take one new dancer, but applicants came from a thousand-mile radius — Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York City,” Mr. Emerson says.

“They were attracted to the idea of a repertory company and the chance to work with a lot of different choreographers. Also they like our ambition, they trust that our dreams and goals have the possibility of succeeding.”

Dana Tai Soon Burgess, who has his own highly regarded company here, has created a solo on next week’s program for Karen Bernstein, the company’s executive director, to mark her retirement from the stage.

“Karen has been such an important part of Washington as a performer,” Mr. Burgess says, “I wanted to make not just a random solo but something that would reflect going to another level in one’s life. Her face is veiled during the dance. At the end she takes off her veil and walks off with her back to us. It’s an emotionally packed journey for a dancer to make the decision to step off stage.”

So far CityDance has commissioned work only from local choreographers but the intent, Mr. Emerson says, has always been to find interesting talent nationally and even internationally. “This is the first year we’ve brought in someone new — a New York choreographer, Roger Jeffrey. He’s a young genius as far as I’m concerned.”

Mr. Jeffrey’s world premiere, “Be Still … Listen,” is a work for four women. “Awakening,” a solo he created for the company’s artist-in-residence, the brilliant Rasta Thomas, is also on the program. In addition, Mr. Thomas will dance a witty solo, “Bumblebee,” choreographed for him by Vladimir Angelov.

Mr. Angelov is probably the best known, most nationally sought after choreographer working regularly with CityDance. He has created works for the San Francisco Ballet, the Kirov Ballet, and has just staged a piece for Ballet Internationale of Indianapolis, which will perform it soon in Paris.

Although his choreographic fee at CityDance is a third or less than his fee at larger companies, he finds working with the local company more artistically satisfying.

With CityDance “I can really approach it as an art form and take huge risks,” Mr. Angelov says. “It’s harder to do that when you’re working with a $100,000 production cost. And the dancers here are so eager, they give more heart, more passion, more effort.”

Mr. Angelov’s new “Axiom,” premiering next week, is neither a linear story ballet nor purely abstract. It takes place in uncharted territory and is set, he says, “in a future time, say the 23rd century.”

Kris O’Shee echoes Mr. Angelov’s pleasure at working with the company. “I’m overwhelmed by the passion, hard work and skill of Paul and the dancers,” the choreographer says. “They work as if they were all on salaries and had six hours a day, every day, to be in the studio, just like the Washington Ballet, but in fact they don’t. The dancers do Pilates, they go to the gym, they do their ballet classes, and they stay in shape.”

Ms. O’Shee spent much of her early career in London. Her work seen locally has been distinguished by its striking boldness and spareness. This time she is making a jazz dance and having a ball doing it. “The music I’m using is filled with so much joy and charm and elegance and the artistry of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.”

CityDance is also committed to interdisciplinary ventures. “Instead of giving a dance performance this spring at Dance Place,” Mr. Emerson says, “we’re going to sponsor a Dance on Camera Festival there … I hope to jump-start the dance on camera culture here. I think audiences respond most when we don’t stay in the box.”

WHAT: CityDance Ensemble

WHEN: Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

TICKETS: $35 to $55

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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