Photo by William Cameron, courtesy Zenon Dance Company
Large swaths of the Cowles Center's seats were empty on Friday night for the first performance of Zenon Dance Company's 31st fall season. (The program runs through December 1.) There might be some audience fatigue in evidence: it's been a busy autumn for local dance companies, and the wintry weather made abundantly clear that fall is drawing to a close. Nutcrackers, including Zenon's, will soon be upon us. The company delivered an appropriately chilly, autumnal program—but the evening of dance was consistently compelling, and it warmed up to an inspiring conclusion.
The program began with the season's world premiere: Stefanie Batten Bland's "Caught." The piece began before the audience was seated, with troupe members writhing slowly in a net cast across the front of the stage. The lights eventually dimmed and the piece began in earnest, but they all stayed—you got it, caught—there behind the net for the work's duration. With them were few clothes, but many white plastic shopping bags. The seven dancers burrowed in the bags, blew the bags in the air, strangled themselves in the bags, and wore the bags around like hoods. "Caught" was by far the evening's weak point, but it was buoyed by the dancers' sudden bursts of movement; Leslie O'Neill, in particular, worked it like she was in the final scene of an avant-garde "Flashdance." Sincerely, I mean that as a compliment.
"Molten Substance," the second of the season's three pieces (Zenon, following a dance-world convention, fits a "season" of dance into the course of a single evening), was such a hit at its premiere just six months ago that the company's brought it back already by popular demand. With good reason: luciana achugar's dance is a marvel of conception and execution, packing an unforgettable wallop into its short duration. Four women (O'Neill, Mary Ann Bradley, Tamara Ober, and Sarah Steichen), their hair hanging over their faces throughout, morosely struggle with shirts and jeans, ultimately working their way into the tight jeans strictly by wiggling and stretching, no hands involved; they then wiggle their way out. It's a nifty trick, but it's a trick that's given substance by its deliberate, moody setting with live percussion accompaniment by JT Bates.
The season's final work is a revival of "Ezekiel's Wheel," a 1999 jazz dance by Danny Buraczeski. Don't read the program note, which will inform you that it's a piece about "the circular motion of struggle and the search for accommodation and tolerance." Just let the piece stand on its own: two exuberant ensemble dances bookending intensely focused solos set to the spoken words of James Baldwin and the remarkable music of Philip Hamilton. The final segment of the work gives the troupe the chance to demonstrate the kind of kinetic joy that you don't often get from ambitious contemporary dance companies that perform pieces like...well, like Caught. Fortunately, with "Ezekiel's Wheel," both performers and audience find welcome escape.