Review: WMU's Winter Gala Dance Concert is Utterly Captivating

Western Michigan University’s dance program has a national reputation for very good reason. Described as “a hidden gem”, their annual Winter Gala Dance Concert is a reflection of the best of what they can produce in any given year. It showcases individual talent but also the program’s phenomenal collaborative and innovative powers.

This two-hour performance of eight distinct dances in two acts offers something for every dance enthusiast out there and successfully pushes the boundaries of contemporary forms with student dancers who are so universally marvelous they seem utterly professional. 

There’s tremendous variety here, not just of style, but of emotion. From enormous crowd-pleasing, joyous numbers such as “Yikes!”, a terrific reprise of hip hop dance organization 269 Crew’s performance from last year, choreographed by Ashlie Roth, Morgan Bodie, and Jessica Welch set to a montage of music from Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, Missy Elliott, and Destiny’s Child, among others, in which 52 dancers show off individuality, attitude, and terrific expressivity—tongues out, eyes rolled, tight little body rolls, in addition to powerful stomping and sharp arms—to an evocative pas de deux in Carolyn Pavlik and Yacov Sharir’s 2009 “Nothing was left but infinite fragments” set to Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata wherein two women dressed in pink trousers and black tops cling to each other and then separate violently as if it were a moody lover’s quarrel. They make exquisite shapes with their bodies; one carries the other in a fetal position, then lifts her with legs like scissors, then with body tight and parallel to the ground. They dance in tandem, separate, with long, lean lines and audible breath, then cling to each other, appearing to resent one other all the while.

Every dance is utterly captivating and yet wildly different from the others.

Other more classical balletic pieces include the show opener “An Evening of BACH”, choreographed by Seyong Kim, that includes “BACH’s Aria”, a barefoot pas de trois that juxtaposes expansive port de bras and stunning extensions full of yearning with slow-motion hip-swaying walks as well as “BACH’s Allegro” a more classical, academic work in which five women dance en pointe in black and pink ombré long tutus landing in lovely tableaus.

“Between Sky and Water” by Jae Man Too opens with a diagonal line of 16 prone bodies with their hands, as if on a keyboard, in a spotlight. Set to Philip Glass, it’s a mesmerizing piece in which less is more—every sinew, every vertebrae of each dancer takes center stage at turns, dressed in black tights and leotards with exposed backs, each and every movement careful, exquisite, elegant. It’s enchanting.

Modern pieces also abound, with great drama, terrific technique, and to various effects. Marissa Peterson’s “The State Of” offers a full stage of bodies with 28 first-year dancers who make lines, ecstatic waves, powerful lifts, fluid then sharp movements and run across the stage and through each other as if a chaotic city with sporadic moments of order. 

Kia Smith’s “Symphony in Grey” set to ambient sound and music that builds to recognizable songs interspersed with snippets of dialogue is more challenging to comprehend, though the dancers move with exceptional musicality—whether to sound, song, or the human voice—as well as skill and passion. And Kelsey Paschich’s “Archetype” from 2018 offers especially intriguing lighting design from Evan P. Carlson in which four barefoot dancers in long, black tutus shift from silhouette to center stage with repetitive movements both robotic and fluidly buoyant, with big arm swings and pirouettes, and a magnificent arabesque that falls forward into a handstand tumble. It’s wonderfully original and danced beautifully.

And perhaps most fun and surprising as well as appropriately definition defying is Jeremy Blair’s “As You Like It”, a riff on the Shakespeare comedy that brings to life in living color the queer relationships of Rosalind, Celia, Orlando, and Touchstone. Those four central characters begin amid twelve other dancers dressed in Elizabethan collared gowns, but they strip off their skirts, revealing funny bloomers, then strip those off, too, to reveal short harlequin color block unitards in which they dance under a disco ball. (Kathryn Wagner’s costumes play a major role here.) One might imagine the dancers in roller skates—so fluid and playful is their movement and such is the atmosphere on stage. Iconic theatrical moves co-opted by the gay community bleed through, such as Vogueing, jazz hands, the bend and snap, among others. It’s an utterly brilliant delight, a colorful testament to gender identity performance restored with joyful (ir)reverence.

This year’s Winter Gala Dance Concert offers an excellent, eclectic program of wonderfully dramatic dances, from classical ballet to hip hop to contemporary and modern performed utterly skillfully by all levels, ages, and body types. It’s a testament to what an incredibly fierce program and company of dancers WMU has cultivated.

Winter Gala Dance Concert
Gilmore Theatre Complex, Shaw Theatre
Friday, Feb. 10 - 8:00pm
Saturday, Feb. 11 - 2:00pm
Saturday, Feb. 11 - 8:00pm
Sunday, Feb. 12 - 2:00pm