A live orchestra made Dance Visions 2017's evening at Irvine Barclay Theatre all the more fun. UCI's dance department presented master works of this and the last century, with five pieces by five very distinct choreographers. Act II opened with a 20th century master: Balanchine's Valse Fantaisie, with tutus and all the expected trappings of neoclassical ballet. The dancers were so good and having such a blast, that the piece got better and better until suddenly, too soon, it was over. But the true thrills were in Act I's world premieres.
Riveting in its power and immediacy was Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return choreographed by Donald McKayle. Just a few moments into the piece, it was clear these dancers of diverse shapes, sizes, and colors were refugees, long before the soundtrack contained snippets of a BBC voice announcing: "refugees," "riot police" "contained." The inventive choreography and individual execution of the rhythmic movement seemed to emerge from the depth of each of the 17 dancers. They moved en masse, not in strict unison, but united. The urgency never let up, their desperation tempered by an intense passion for life: from the running to catch up while at the same time horrified to lose what was behind them to the sensual duo to the blistering, careening crescendo and final collapse. Did they arrive? Did they perish? Did they fall before the enormity of the projected yellow sky filled with birds above a massive sea that they must now muster the will to cross?
If Crossing the Rubicon was a social-media post of the grim here-and-now, A Moment was the nostalgic throwback share that all your friends love. The contemporary ballet's first moment was a big bang. Lights up, and all at once we are in a sophisticated metropolis as the hidden orchestra swept into Ravel's Valse Nobles et Sentimentales. There was not a redundant motion in this piece that evoked a Gotham-inspired montage in a mid-century Hollywood flick. We are led into the private world of these public beings, as duets come forward out of the crowd, one romantic and one a lovers' quarrel; two trios suggest friends thrilled to take on the big city; a single solo takes us downtown, where the bohemian thrives. Choreographer Molly Lynch compared the inspiration for the piece to driving down the traffic-heavy freeway and being let in on the private conversations within the other cars.
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Lynch, an Associate Professor in UCI's dance department, says, "If I can, I like to use live music. It enhances the experience for the audience, and for the dancers at the university. It's also a good pedagogical experience for the musicians." She has a longtime collaboration with Dance Visions conductor Dr. Stephen Tucker. Lynch brings him what she's been thinking about a new piece, even if it's not mapped out yet. It was Tucker who suggested the Ravel for A Moment, and his student orchestra was impressive throughout the evening. As were the two live musicians onstage for Celestial Bodies by Chad Michael Hall, with an original score by fellow dance professor Alan Terricciano. Violinist and music professor Haroutune Bedelian was accompanied by the composer on grand piano. The two instruments filled the Barclay, but the dance itself only lived up to their playing during the long solo by an exquisitely talented dancer, Sarina Ramirez-Ortiz.
The evening ended with a 2010 work of Lar Lubovitch, The Legend of Ten: Part 1. The androgynous dancers were all arms and sweeping heads, the intricate movement contained within a darker realm that seemed to speak directly from the center of the modern dance world. Lubovitch, who joined the faculty at UCI in July, founded his company in 1968, its longevity so clearly a result of the quality of the work.
While the legend of Lubovitch's title refers to that of a map, both he and McKayle have been named "irreplaceable dance treasures" by the Dance Heritage Coalition. UCI's dance department has been disciplined and accomplished since its beginnings 50 years ago, and now it is lucky to have two living legends on the faculty, though McKayle's premiere of Crossing the Rubicon stole the show.