With a tagline like “Connecting to the power within,” it’s no wonder that Nu-World Contemporary Danse Theatre creates deeply emotional works that can run the gamut of the human experience from exuberance to despair and back again in a single night. Founders and former Cleo Parker Robinson Dance members Bashir Page-Sanders and Christopher Page Sanders lead the company’s artistic direction and choreography. Prior to “Four,” the married duo told the audience their goal for the evening’s performance: to bring the community together in the emotional evolution of each work. Their myriad autobiographical influences– from the opening prayer at their wedding to recently deceased family members– add even more emotional weight to each piece.
While comprised of five works, “Four” took its name as the fourth full-length production from the company and featured three world premieres. The first performance, “Dear God,” choreographed by Bashir, featured dancer William Roberson in a work exploring the nuances of faith. The casual costume of a t-shirt and cargo shorts combined with a simple Windsor chair speak to the everyday nature of faith, as something fully integrated into the character’s life. This added a level of intimacy with, and even voyeurism on the part of, the audience. Roberson’s emotional bandwidth coupled with his lyricism and precision made him irresistible to watch. His tears of joy at the end of the performance showed how deeply he felt the movement.
“The Evolution of Blue,” one of the three world premieres, featured soloist Kimberly Chmielewski (a staple in Denver’s dance community) dancing to choreography by Chris. From her floral leotard and flowing skirt to her poetic movements, everything about the work imbues a contained and refined grace. I first noticed a signature Nu-World tactic in this piece: the combination of dramatic, audible breath with movement. While on the sitting on the floor Chmielewski contracted her torso, scooping out her belly to forcefully breathe out every ounce of air from her lungs. The drama of this single movement was completely and utterly arresting. The lighting, a blue background with a red spotlight, added even more intensity.
The next work, “The Journey,” showcased Nu-World’s diverse roster in both age and ethnicity. Dedicated to an aunt and uncle who passed within months of each other, the complex and varied work had dancers moving in and out of unification, coming together for brief duets or breaking off into tangential solos. This poetic work engaged viewers to keep an eye on each and every dancer. One particular moment that stuck with me was by Jenny Gram, a recent Denver transplant, due to its echoes of Swan Lake. Again, the breath remained a key in ratcheting up the drama as Gram expelled all her air and curved her back like a bird blown back in mid air.
The next piece, “I AM,” was issued with a “rough and heavy” warning. Of all the pieces in “Four,” this work most clearly showed the agony of the human condition. Choreographed by Bashir, the work opened with Chris in a spotlight, topless and wearing a green circle skirt that was spread out around him. Through his words and actions, the audience learned that something terrible happened, but exactly what was hard to understand. Ongoing physical abuse, racially-charged violence, rape? What remained clear was the effect of that trauma: fear and agony. Meanwhile, Margarita Taylor (who performs as “Granny” in Cleo Parker Robinson’s annual holiday performance, “Granny Dances to a Holiday Drum”) took the stage and slowly moved across stating “I am” affirmations. Nyna Moore and Roberson later appear. Moore’s chilling and piercing scream seemed to create an airless vacuum in the theater at one point. Later in the performance Roberson and Chris performed a duet, which was refreshing. I often see female/female or male/female duets but rarely male/male. With the expansion of sexuality and gender roles in recent years, it seems odd that choreography hasn’t followed suit. While certainly an emotional work to watch, I wanted less ambivalence in the piece. I once had a writing instructor that said, “Ambivalence is not the same as ambiguity.” Ambiguity remains integral to art; ambivalence, on the other hand, exposes insecurity or confusion on behalf of the artist.
“Four” ends with “Light Workers,” the final world premiere of the evening, choreographed by Chris. As diametrically opposed to “I AM” as possible, “Light Workers” manifested joy. In the talk-back immediately following the performance, Bashir and Chris said about the work that “the light you send out is what you attract” and went on to say that in contemporary life “we need angels and warriors of light and love.” This exuberance came through each and every dancer throughout the piece, their smiles beaming. Numerous moments of tenderness and intimacy occurred throughout the piece, but one of my favorites was when dancers touched their heads together as if trying to understand what the other was thinking. Another impactful moment was the duet between Gram and Martez McKinzy, who appeared courtesy of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, for its expressiveness and beauty.
Nu-World Contemporary Danse Theatre boldly pushes the emotional limits of its dancers and audiences to create challenging and engaging works that touch on the personal, communal, and political. I look forward to seeing what emotional territories they will chart next.
Deanne Gertner: A Colorado native, Deanne Gertner is a graduate from Regis University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She currently sits on the board of Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and was previously involved with CultureHaus, the Denver Art Museum’s young professionals’ group. Her writing has appeared in DailyServing, Quaint Magazine, and Scintilla. She is currently at work on a collection of essays about family dynamics in addition to editing a newspaper/zine about happiness for Denver Theatre District’s Happy City project with U.K. artist Stuart Semple.