No matter how long you’ve been watching dance in the Twin Cities, no matter how many performances you’ve seen, you’re always missing something—some stellar dancer, some sweet or quirky little gem, some genre or subgenre you didn’t even know existed. Take Eclectic Edge Ensemble. The all-woman jazz company has apparently been around since 2001, although I’d only heard of them last year and had never watched them in action before last night. Eclectic Edge is overflowing with skilled dancers I’ve mostly never seen before (with the notable exception of jack-of-all-trades Jennifer Mack, who shows up in all kinds of work lately), the company performs work by choreographers I’ve never reviewed, and the company’s genre—straight jazz—is one I’d thought largely dead in Minneapolis since the disbanding of Danny Buraczewski’s Jazzdance.
So what have I been missing? On the showing of the first half of the program (which contains six works, four by EEE Artistic Director Karis Sloss), I’ve been missing some lightweight, mostly well-constructed little dance snippets that a critic could either savage or let go lightly by, depending on her mood. On the savage side, I can’t detect a reason for most of these pieces to exist, other than the sheer pleasure taken in them by choreographer and cast—which is plenty to justify amateur art activity, but not enough to buttress art at a professional level. Dancers simply enter, dance around a bit in neat little formations, and then go off. They might be conveying a mood or acting out the lyrics to their music, but I don’t see higher level dance thinking, just the matching of steps to notes. And I wouldn’t call that matching flawless: instead, the dance is sometimes unmusical, sometimes awkward, sometimes too hard for the dancers. The steps themselves are a hodgepodge of borrowings: a classical ballet attitude is followed by an air-clawing jazz step that surely was last at home in the Broadway musical Cats. Guest choreographer Judith E. James Ries, once a member of Jazzdance, has more outright skill than Sloss, but her “Roller Coasting” is no more original. It’s the kind of peppy, outdated jazz that one ought to call “high-energy!” Okay, it’s decidedly high-energy, but what else? Only Katrina Schleisman’s weird, hunched-up, broken-doll dance “Sixlets” has glimmers of novelty; but Schleisman seems to be a less experienced choreographer, and she doesn’t know how to develop her initial ideas.
On the other hand. . . if you drop your high art expectations, stop wondering why this is onstage, and just watch as you might a screensaver, it’s all pleasant enough. Bodies move around, legs fly out, the occasional performer does something extraordinary. This is clearly the right approach to take to this work, which doesn’t reward or, really, profit from my kind of criticism. Moreover, back to that sheer pleasure of choreographer and cast I mentioned above—it can be enough, if you’re in a good mood, to just watch these dancers enjoying themselves. Sloss’s “Challenge” is just a faux-salsa collage, but when the dancers (particularly Christa Anderson-Hill) get into it, swiveling their hips, hitching up their skirts, and swinging their hair, “Challenge” becomes something else entirely.
If you can unfocus your critical vision slightly to enjoy the first half of the show, no such unfocusing is needed for the second half. “A Woman’s Choice,” Sloss’s multi-part exploration of contemporary women’s lives, takes a vaudeville tone from its circus beginning, and continues (mostly) in a surreal and funny vein. Women waiting for dates to call make a little phone-opening fountain as if they were a corps de ballet. Women balancing complex modern lives toss their brooms, briefcases, and inert baby dolls over their shoulders. Women trying to be sexy get tangled in the chairs they mean to straddle. The vaudeville mood suits Sloss’s choreographic repertoire, the broad strokes of the satire giving her an outline to color in with sassy steps and movement jokes; the dancers pour their performing enthusiasm into their campy characters. Altogether, it’s a hit.
A Woman’s Choice only falters in its serious, sincere sections—notably the solo that I imagine is meant to ground the whole piece. Abstraction and pure emotion aren’t for every artist. In fact, let’s face it—they’re not for most artists. The artwork that is about “just me being me!” is, in any genre, an invitation for sap and stupidity. Most artists are better off narrowing their views—which, paradoxically, often opens their resonance and their imaginations. With the vaudevillian absurdity of A Woman’s Choice (and, to a lesser degree, “Sixlets”), Eclectic Edge has found original ground. Let’s hope they keep exploring it.
July 17–20, The Ritz Theater, ritztheaterfoundation.org