May 8, 2009

‘Solos’ invokes a singular direction in modern dance
by David Ollington

In 1994, a group of energetic, ambitious modern dancers combined their efforts to form a dance ensemble known as aha! dance theatre.  For several years they operated consensually, giving full weight to everyone’s input regarding decisions, vision, even scheduling. 

Dancer Kathryn Cowan in "Stifling" by Peter Kalivas (photo by Mike Strong)

After four years, the structure of aha! changed to a company with two artistic directors, Michelle Diane Brown and Susan Rieger, overseeing an ensemble of professional dancers. In 2004, Brown struck out on her own starting Kacico Dance, a dance company and school with her in the driver’s seat. Brown elided the phrase “Kansas City Contemporary Dance” to create the word “Kacico.”

This process, a move from collective to singular artistic direction, recurs in the history of American modern dance. An early example historically was a group titled Grand Union. Established in 1970 in New York City, it included some of the “grandest” names in the field of post-modern dance and dissolved after six years, each artist consequently following individual, respective paths. Contemporary Dance in Fort Worth and Gash/Voigt in St. Louis represent more regional examples of modern dance companies that either evolved to singular artistic direction or dissolved because of differences among dual leaders.

Brown gave herself the opportunity to shape her own vision. The company’s name, location, philosophy, and manner of promotion all carry Brown’s crafting. Her most recent production, A Concert of Solos, presents an evening of dances performed by single individuals, reaffirming the singularity of her company’s paradigm.

Kacico executes the concert in a dance studio at West Pennway and 26th, just north of Penn Valley Park. Walk up the stairs in the office building, go down the hall, and enter a studio/theatre. The location gives the event an urban edge and an experimental feel. Rather than offering a formal concert in an auditorium, Brown concocted a vanguard, post-modern showing of work. 

Brown choreographed six of the solos on the program, contracted three guest artist works, and allowed two of the company dancers to set pieces. Viewing an evening of only dance solos causes an audience to note not only contrasting elements of each but also commonalities.  Several of the musical selections for the dances involve extensive use of silence — no musical accompaniment. The urban setting of the show serves this choice well — true silence doesn’t exist.

These moments of the dances allow us to hear as music the passing traffic noises and the occasional siren, an opportunity unavailable in most auditoriums. The thinner walls of the office building thereby increase the ephemerality of the concert; we know that tomorrow night’s concert will have different “music” during those segments.

When patrons attend the ballet, they accept the convention of extensive program notes to explain the onstage action. This particularly holds true for story ballets — one needs to know the story to follow the plot. Modern dance choreographers as a rule eschew program notes; the dances should speak for themselves. Brown has emphatically broken this rule. Each solo has a detailed explanation in the program. The lights come up in between each dance to allow audience perusal thereof.

This works. Contemporary dance, like all contemporary arts, often relishes an enigmatic irony, almost deliberately inaccessible. How easy it is to create work that only the artisan understands. The more we as viewers know about a painter, a writer, or a choreographer, the better we can appreciate the work.

Modern dance, take a lesson from classical ballet programs: We like it more when we get it.

Guest choreographer Julie Rothschild of Floorspace Movement Art Studios in Athens, GA, set a gripping work on Brown, the only piece in the concert Brown dances. Subtle, substantial, and performed with brimming presence, Rothschild’s piece, titled “imparts forward motion,” makes sparing use of Bach piano music, much of it executed with the accompaniment of ambient sound. The piece concludes with Brown slowly and hypnotically walking as we hear a voice conjecturing about her condition. “Is she ok?” repeats as the lights fade.

Kacico dancer Shandi Miller created an astonishing solo, “A man in human form,” for Aaron Brownlee to dance. Miller lists few credits in her bio; she’s young and shows remarkable skill. Brownlee dances with an effortless athleticism. Miller’s program note reads, “I believe a man has a mechanical way and a human way about him and I explored what comfort comes from those contrasting qualities.” Keep an eye on these two.

Tuesday Faust dances Guest Choreographer Susan Warden’s “here.”   This piece premiered at Modern Night at the Folly in January of this year. Faust details space with the meditative choreography, intimately, tenderly, and reflectively responding to Da Pacem Domine, a resonant choral work by Arvo Pärt.

Brown’s choreography dominates the evening, with six of her creations on the docket. The strongest of these, “Female,” expresses the conflicts of motherhood, wifehood, and career. Structured in vignettes, the lights abruptly fade after brief, expressionistic segments. The dancer, Faust, slightly alters her clothing in each blackout, removing beige covering to reveal black spandex underneath.  Faust somehow fuses angst with neutrality, dancing the conflicting movement like a marionette being led through a vision of hell. Steve Morse’s music explores low-pitched static. The darkness of the blackouts feels like moments in a haunted house ride; the music deepens when the lights go out.

Experimentation serves as the foundation for cutting-edge art forms like modern dance. Brown courageously ventures into the unknown, and she does it her way.

A Concert of Solos provides extended moments of kinetic involvement, the opportunity for reflection, and works challenging to both dancer and viewer. It runs until May 10. Curtain time is 7:30 pm, 2540 West Pennway, second floor.

Kacico Dance’s next performance will be The Song and Dance Project, June 12-27, at various locations. Visit for more information.

David Ollington can be contacted at


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