- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

The setting was grand, even a bit overpowering, as CityDance Ensemble took to the stage for one night only on Thursday and became the first dance company to perform at the Music Center at Strathmore’s large new concert hall.

Baptizing the space as a dance stage was a challenging assignment, and CityDance and its artistic director, Paul Emerson, rose to the occasion with a well-chosen program of top-quality choreography performed by a company that has never looked stronger.

The handsome hall was not specifically designed for dance, so the opportunity to appear there has both rewards and hazards.

One drawback is the superlarge, impersonal space against which the dance appears; its blank canvas calls out for far greater emphasis on imaginative lighting design.

A special reward for CityDance is the opportunity to draw on the talented faculty of the Levine School of Music for live accompaniment. Its musicians, headed by cellist Vasily Popov, added immeasurably to the vibrancy of “Suitcase.” Unfortunately omitted was a richly deserved curtain call for the musicians.

“Suitcase” was one of the evening’s highlights, with its incisive choreography by Vladimir Angelov; its score, “La Folia,” by Antonio Vivaldi; and, most important, a riveting performance by Tiffani Frost and the company’s stunning new dancer, Bruno Augusto. He and another newcomer, Florian Rouiller, together with Reginald Cole, give CityDance a dream trio of strong male dancers.

Added to that were the sizzling performances of the company’s prized “artist in residence,” Rasta Thomas, now on tour as the male lead in Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out.” Mr. Thomas is a whirling, vaulting, somersaulting ball of athletic energy. He appeared in two solos choreographed for him by Mr. Angelov, the new “Soulo,” which used the dancer’s phenomenal technique and commanding stage presence to dramatic effect, and the brief, rollicking “Bumblebee.”

“Eclipse,” by noted choreographer Doug Varone, was artistically the most provocative dance on the program, a work that fed the imagination through the choreographer’s gift for making simple, fluid movements spell out complex relationships. A trio for a man and two women, “Eclipse” begins with natural gestures: A hand thrust to the side becomes a barrier, excluding one from the trio. The next time a dancer’s hand goes out, it touches another hand in an act of inclusion.

A world of subtle, shifting relationships unfolds, animated by Mr. Varone’s melting, fluid choreography. The three fine dancers were Melissa Greco, Ellen Rippon and Mr. Augusto. “Eclipse” was an inspired choice for the company and a sign of its rising artistic ambitions.

The rest of the program showed the company tackling a variety of styles with ease, validating its profile as a repertory company ” a concept rare in the field of modern dance.

The opening “How Do I Love Thee” by Eric Hampton was a series of often amusing, brightly danced duets, solos and trios set to music that ranged from Mozart to pop songs. It was the single instance in which the lighting, designed by Martha Mountain, enhanced the dance.

“A Comfortable Quiet,” danced by Miss Frost and Mr. Cole, featured Mr. Angelov’s strong, effective choreography set to words by Miss Frost. Roger Jeffrey’s “Be Still … Listen” was a repeat, and Mr. Emerson’s “Peregrine” brought almost the whole company onstage for a suitably high-energy finale.

The rest of the excellent company included Teri Jo Brown, Kelly Mayfield, Candice Webster and Alice Wylie.

A lone shadow on the eve-ning was the announcement that Associate Artistic Director Karen Bernstein was resigning. Her contribution to the company’s success has been immense.

CityDance has grown dramatically over the past few years; the Strathmore performance marks a huge step for the company, and this may be just the beginning.

Using this dramatic new hall is basically a once-a-year event for this small, rising company. The only way to hone its skills is by getting onstage regularly and often.

At the risk of sounding like a “Saturday Night Live” skit mocking Al Gore’s repetitions of “lockbox,” I would like to reiterate that a compact “black box” space would add immeasurably to the Music Center’s outreach ” and CityDance’s, as well.


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