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EMAV Review: Artfully exploring the human condition, two ensembles 'Coalesce' for UNLV Dance

★★★★☆ - Delicious

New York City based Harper Continuum Dance Theatre and Las Vegas' own Red Desert Dance Ensemble came together this past weekend to perform their intriguing and insightful concert "Coalesce," presented by UNLV Department of Dance in Dance Studio One at the Alta Ham Fine Arts. In meaningful collaboration the two contemporary dance companies take very different approaches in style and tone to an intense examination of the ways in which humans do, and also don't, manage to connect.

Their respective pieces are presented in two separate acts and include additional art forms such as poetry, spoken word, live vocalizations, and even live painting. And while the two ensembles do unite in harmonious coalescence toward the end of the concert, it's only a momentary convergence. As a whole the disparate styles don't quite blend, but contrast, perhaps, is precisely the point.

The first half of the show is shaped by the hustle and bustle of a busy city with its endless possibilities for meaningful connection. It proves the perfect landscape for the contemplative modern dance work "Strangers on the Street," a collection of ten pieces choreographed by Cathy Allen, artistic director of Red Desert Dance Ensemble. Each number is inspired by and titled after an actual photo from famous photoblog "Humans of New York," by Brandon Stanton, and subtitled with its accompanying, thoughtful text.

Opener "Passing Strangers Waiting" subtitled "The Subway on 57th street and an Artist in the Park" establishes a spiritual, almost epiphanic mood, set to the heavenly music of Kevin MacLeod and the humming of live vocalist Gary Fowler, who also recites the poetry of Walt Whitman. UNLV dance students Lonnie Chaney III, Keanna Corley, Malik Gray, Kristina Hakobyan, Dakota Jean Miller, and Lay'la Rogers perform with quiet, powerful presence and athletic grace, crafting subtle characterizations while using their bodies as imperfect instruments for emotional expression. They reach and grasp, contract and fall, tilt and hinge. They bounce as if riding on a subway train, purposefully walk in challenging patterns, and watch as Miller moves slowly with sustained poses while painter Isaac Pelayo brushes impromptu artwork upon her. A human canvas, she ultimately blends into a painting he has drawn on a wall, a fantastic effect helped by Elizabeth Kline's lighting design.

The pieces segue seamlessly one to the next, and the sinuous Gray creates a stark, beautiful stage picture during his solo "Little Boy Thinking," rolling about on a footstool with controlled, outstretched limbs and fluid movement to the percussive sounds of Adionautix. The luminous Rogers has the stirring solo "Silent Voice Reaching" in which she moves softly to a plaintive piano, slowly building momentum and strength along with the music. She adeptly conveys deep sadness, and when she was unintentionally upstaged by a group of latecomers searching for seats, she admirably maintained calm and focus. An earnest Corley effortlessly transmits a feeling of longing from her gut during her solo "Compliance," Chaney III and Hakobyan share a charming flirtation during their balletic duet "Encounter," and the entire ensemble lets loose during the playful "Samba Ensemble," pulling audience members onstage for a Latin ditty.

While Act I feels open and hopeful, Act II feels closed and repressed. With eight pieces the contemporary choreography of Heather Harper, artistic director for Harper Continuum Dance Theatre, is stylized and refined. Ian Dodge, Jordan Norton, and Amy Perkinson comprise the trio of excellent company dancers (though they weren't always in sync Friday) and appear to be classically trained, which suits Harper's often jazzy, balletic style as in "Slogging Away." Set to Moby's jarring electronica the piece feels angry, full of swinging arms, swift turns, and sharp flip lifts, the trio moving urgently as if interaction with others is a struggle.

"Cloistered" is an eerie piece set to "The Lonely Night" by Moby with dystopian voiceover of Mark Lanegan. The choreography is stark and aesthetic with the trio in spotlight center, at first slowly moving their angular arms into different shapes which carve out the space around them. They roll in spirals on the floor, do turn arabesques, and sweeping arm reaches. Claustrophobic and emotionally empty, it's almost like the three dancers represent different fragments of a person with a shattered identity.

After the dark pieces comes the light, comforting "Grounded," danced gently by Perkinson to the poem "Angels On Shoulders" by Janine Leffler in voiceover by Libby Winters, which opens the door for the ensemble to join the trio and improvisationally "Coalesce" to angelic orchestral music. Dressed in white, moving and swaying as one organism, they unite in a message of hope. But it's fleeting, because in the finale "Inscription" they exit coalescence and separate into their original groups, stripping to their undergarments as Pelayo returns to paint the ensemble, bringing the show full circle and ending how it began.

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