Nov. 17, 2004


Daring and refreshing
By David Ollington

Susan Rieger, artistic director of aha! dance theatre, has diligently achieved status as one of the most consummate and innovative dance artists in the community. aha! began in the early ‘90s as a collective of modern dancers interested in exploring movement improvisation together. In 2002, Rieger became the sole artistic director of the company, having set cutting-edge dances, enigmatic and expertly conceived. In January of this year, Rieger received an award from the Kennedy Center for achievement in choreography.

She oversaw the recent aha! performance at the Lawrence Art Center, titled Aperture, on Nov. 13. Her vision succeeded in producing a courageous concert, refreshing in its experimentation and generous in execution. Two pieces in particular stand out for their unique use of audience participation.

Top Dog/Underdog

Dancers in aha! dance theatre's performance of Aperture. (photo by Nick Davis)

We regularly hear or read the announcement in programs, "Please turn off your cell phones." Before "Public Becomes Private," the opening dance of Aperture, the audience was asked to not only turn on their cell phones, but to feel free to make calls. Dancers moved on the Art Center stage with cell phone motifs, like holding one next to the ear with a raised shoulder. Once, a dancer actually engaged in a phone conversation with an audience member, as she continued to dance Rieger's choreography.

Phones chirped and glowed throughout the house. "Public Becomes Private" maintained a tone of acceptance; Rieger neither endorsed nor criticized modern-day reliance on mobile phones. She merely created a dance around it.

The other dance that offered direct audience participation in dance experimentation, "Prismatica," closed the concert. The performance required us to don fireworks’ glasses — thin cardboard glasses containing lenses that exaggerated our perception of light. Wearing these glasses, one sees anything luminous multiplied with floating rainbow images, a visual echo. The lights went out and we watched moving flashlights, brilliantly enhanced by the glasses. The most surreal moment of the concert occurred when the performers marched into the house. Though they slowly walked towards and past us, the refraction of the light seemed almost threatening.

Rieger, with sensitivity, pieced together the dance "F-Stop." For this dance sound designer Terry Moore amalgamated musical passages by J.S. Bach in variant speeds, some comically fast. Rieger constructed phrases of movement that varied in speed from dancer to dancer. The insightful grouping of this work offered surprise. The motion she created filled the space, and the company danced with heart.

aha! engaged three guest choreographers for "Aperture," two of whom participated in another fresh approach to dance. Rieger choreographed a trio to the music of Eric Schultz. Her trio remained in two specific areas of the stage space. Guest artists Tina Kambour and E.E. Balcos also choreographed trios to the same music, using two other areas. Performers danced Rieger's dance and Balcos' dance, collectively titled "Double Blind," at the closing of Act One.

Act Two opened with Rieger's same dance done opposite Kambour's, which they called "Double Exposure." We viewed Rieger's dance twice, with different dances opposite hers each time. The choreographers announced their process beforehand. Each worked on his or her own — in different cities. Balcos resides in Springfield, MO, Kambour, in Oklahoma. They came together and, with very little rehearsal, threw their dances together. Knowing this made watching for moments of spontaneous connection between the dances engaging. Both collaborations made for density but the choreographers bravely took a calculated risk.

Kambour also choreographed "Keeping Things Whole," a quintet to the music of Erich Kory. Poignant, fluid and athletic, the dance expressed spiritual feelings using lyrical floor patterns and passionate lifts.

Susan Warden, artistic director of the Lawrence company Prairie Wind Dancers, choreographed "2146 in a Series" in 1987. Rieger engaged Warden to set it on aha! Three women in pink teddies quoted passages of a Harlequin Romance and posed provocatively in between passages of darting, contrasting motion. The fresh idea for the piece fit in well with the vanguard tone of the entire concert.

Speaking in unison in a dance presents a dilemma, though. An actor speaking dialogue will hold and wait to continue while an audience laughs. "2146 in a Series" incited several laughs from the house, but since Warden choreographed the dancers to speak in rhythm, at times we missed words because of our chuckling.

Rieger, Balcos and aha! dancer Jennifer Otto collaborated on the duet "Chiascuro," danced by Balcos and Otto. Lighting Designer John "Moose" Kimball beautifully draped the dancers in closely cut pools of light and shadow. The dancers partnered each other using emphatically fluid movement and close, undulating exchanges of weight. Moving this smoothly over and around each other showed remarkable skill on the part of the dancers, but "Chiascuro" maintained a monochromatic, slow dynamic and a predictable structure: He lifted her, she lifted him, repeat.

In "Display," six dancers appeared in different outfits and danced with quirky gesture and characterization. The dancers, Otto, Rieger, Kimber Andrews, Tracie Davis, Chrystal Robins and Sarah Mermis, designed the movement for the piece under Rieger's direction. In bizarre costumes, the dancers created and expressed specific, mobile personalities. Like most of Rieger's work, "Display" presented an impartial slice of human interaction. Rieger choreographs to hold up a mirror to society rather than to editorialize.

The next performance of aha! dance theatre will be at the Folly Theater in "Modern Night at the Folly," produced by City in Motion Dance Theater, Jan. 21, 2005. Tickets are available through the Folly Box Office, 816-474-4444.

David Ollington can be contacted at or



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