Review: Mark Rapp & Stephanie Wilkin's "Woven"

woven By: David Ligon

As the lights come up, the stage was occupied by three platforms high above the floor with a five man band occupying them. After a subtle “one, two, three” from the bandleader they began to perform a big and brassy opening number called “Celebrating Life.” It immediately transported the audience to a New Orleans dancehall with the dancers onstage, coming in and out in pairs as they did the Charleston with huge smiles on their faces. It’s no surprise that New Orleans would have an influence on how composer Mark Rapp would shape his full-length work, Woven. He had lived and worked in New Orleans for the past decade, and most of the pieces that would become Woven were apart of Rapp’s master’s thesis. He and his collaborator, choreographer Stephanie Wilkin, both share a rich and experienced history that starts in Columbia then leads on to New York City, where they each found success. Neither had met each other until Rapp caught the interest of Katie Fox, the Executive Director of the Harbison Theater at Midlands Technical College. The theater ultimately invested in this show as part of Midlands Tech’s Performance Incubator series, with Woven as its third fully-funded collaboration. Katie Fox led a “speed date,” as she refers to it, while helping Rapp search for the perfect choreographer.  When he saw Wilkins’ choreography on a DVD, he was moved, and the collaboration began.

The intention of this series is to have the show previewed and then for it to become a touring work. After its debut, Fox was thrilled to announce that the show had already received two offers from production companies to begin touring.

Requiring two months of preparation, Woven is an ambitious collaboration, a 90-minute work combining jazz music and contemporary dance. Jazz music can sometimes be intimidating and difficult to choreograph because it’s scattered melody and improvisations, which pushes some choreographers away.  But Wilkins took that challenge head on and let her strong and fabulous dancers improvise in certain ways, just as jazz musicians tend to do. Wilkins makes a great effort to blend in interesting nods to swing dance while keeping a contemporary framework. Contemporary choreography has a way of being led by raw emotion, and deals with pedestrian movement and expands on it, sometimes playing off what your partner does on stage with a set of rules. Ms. Wilkins had very interesting ideas, new lifts I hadn’t seen before, and new combinations of movement that worked well with the evening’s music. The structure of her movement is interesting, because it incorporated a lyrical contemporary style, as well as Broadway and swing. It created unique juxtapositions not often seen. The structure of the movement gives more organization to the often-scattered music that can be associated with jazz.

Wilkins is an Adjunct Professor at the University of South Carolina, and when she was looking for talent, she picked five dancers from the university: Emily Anzalone, Rhe’a Hughes, Vidal X. James, Dallas King, and Dustin Praylow. She used one professional dancer from Columbia, Anthony Hinrichs, who currently dances with UNBOUND, a local contemporary-jazz company and is also on the faculty of Southern Strutt in Irmo. The dancers were enthusiastic about being a part of this work, and they danced with great ease despite the difficulty of Wilkins’ choreography.

With just six dancers in total, which is small amount for a 90 minute full-length work, it sometimes felt like the piece hadn’t reached its full potential. In the future perhaps more dancers can be added, spreading out the responsibilities to create a broader feel and really explore the main characters more. Hopefully a bigger cast can be incorporated in the future so Ms. Wilkins can have more to work with and not tire out the dancers. The moment where this was most clear was a video break in the fifth section of the first act, “Sweet Serene.” It was obviously meant as a break for the dancers, who until that point had been dancing wonderfully in couples and as a group. The video montage felt unnecessary since the dancers would be constantly going in and out of character. The constant real life or blooper moments that were happening on screen took away from the storyline and the music didn’t seem to sync that well either.

The night was comprised of two acts with eleven pieces of music with a story revolving around a couple and the evolution of a relationship from first encounters, to breaking up, to self-loathing, and ultimately getting back together. Dallas King and Anthony Hinrichs took on these demanding roles. Ms. Wilkins not only gave them athletic, aerobic challenging choreography, but she was also able to capture the emotions needed for the storyline.

The couple that was featured in the video, King and Hinrichs, now appears onstage, and the struggle that was depicted towards the end of the video is now more visually stimulating. The expressiveness that the film tried to capture is better understood on stage. After Ms. King leaves, Mr. Hinrichs is left all alone and he began to dance passionately and expressively, using a lot contractions and pliés as he is dancing through his pain. He’d jump high and turn, a tour en l’air, and immediately jump to the floor into a push up position, crawl out from that and tour en l’air again, all while playing the angsty adolescent boy trying to find love. He shakes a lot as if he was going insane from a broken heart, and he tries to compose himself but he can’t. He collapses; giving up under one of the platforms, and the moody cool jazz score is an appropriate ending to the first part of the evening. The second act opens with Ms. King dancing to slow lyrical number, almost pensive about what had happened in the previous act.  The movement quality is so strong with Ms. King that she is quite able to express the pain her character is going through. In the end they found their way back together dancing a beautiful pas de deux of him mimicking her every move, as if to say we’ve got this together.

The most disconnected part of the evening was when the dancers would leave the stage and do not return at all as the music finished. This happened more than once and it was disappointing that the dancers never really got to give their own punctuation at the end of each movement. These moments however were to give each musician time to do their own thing and give the improvisatory nature of the music its own autonomy. These jazz solos, although quite impressive, felt vacant because the dancing suddenly stops and the stage is free from movement. It felt as if there were two shows going on or the story of the song had yet to be completed. But when the dancers were on stage the juxtaposition of these two mediums worked really well together. The jazz music gave each movement a breath of happiness when sometimes contemporary movement can feel overly emotional and pained, although it didn’t seem like this was Ms. Wilkins’ approach. This show was a success because it brought two mediums together not often seen, and did an exceptional job. People will be clapping their hands with the dancers, and stomping their feet to the amazing music presented. Hopefully the show can add a few more dancers and then this already amazing production can be polished and made even better for people all across America.