Ballet without borders

Courage Group premiered a mixed bag of new works at the Jewish Community Center
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Idiko Polony in dirty girl

a&eletters@sfbg.com

REVIEW For its first appearance — with three new works — at the Jewish Community Center Sept. 3-4, the Courage Group attracted a large, appreciative audience. It's easy to see why. Over his company's seven years of existence, Todd Courage has developed a choreographic language that is ballet-based but thoroughly contemporary in the way it tears — sometimes humorously, sometimes sarcastically — at ballet's edges. He loves its linearity, so he chooses from existing steps and combinations and then stirs them into a melting pot, where they become just one of the ingredients at his disposal.

Musically, he is equally selective. He patches his scores together like a quilter. You quickly learn to forget about context and go along for the ride. Some of the musical transitions may jar, but most of the time they develop something akin to an aural logic. I found myself amused by Bach and Handel playing hopscotch with each other. Chris Fletcher was the program's excellent sound engineer.

Courage may be more of a mixmaster of dance than an innovator, but he has developed his own voice and the skills to articulate his intentions. This trio of works, at the very least, indicates that he knows where he wants to go. And he is in a hurry to get there. All three are foaming with ideas; they also tend to wander. Tighter control, not necessarily of individual sections but of the overall trajectory, is an issue.

Placing six shallow women and a deep one at the top of the program, with tall Peta Barrett as the odd one out, was a risky choice. The dancers looked awful in the way they stomped through their steps, apparently indifferent to the opening phrases of Bach's glorious "Violin Concerto in D minor." Then the possibilty arose that Courage has perhaps seen too many students tear mindlessly through ballet class. This may have inspired him to start out with a deadpan version of every teacher's terminal frustration.

In the second movement, when Barrett calmly unfolded her limbs, the audience could breathe a sigh of relief. Her partnering of the company's smallest dancer, Christina Chelette — including cantilevering leg hugs — suggested an emotional relationship between equals despite physical differences. The rest of six alternated between Bach and Handel in choreography in which the dancers did just fine. They might momentarily have sunk into a ballet pose, but some of the most effective sections, such as canonic entrances of purposeful walks, were beautifully simple. Courage also recognized one of dance's great secrets: the beauty of unisons.

dirty girl dug into one of the choreographer's previous preoccupations — the awkwardness of pubescence. In 2006's High Anita, it was cheerleaders. Here the cheerleaders went to a slumber party and gave the heroine a sponge bath. girl's humor is somewhat creepy as these young women veered between innocence and sex kittens. The choreography was game-based and influenced by teen fashion imagery. Dressed in the tiniest of skirts with flaming ruched red underwear, the dancers negotiated their way between the strictures of the Voice of God (Barrett) and the demands of their budding sexuality. The former yielded a spanking, the latter offered birthday cake frosting to lick. You can read into those images anything you want. The audience, probably remembering their own in-between years, clearly appreciated Courage's lighthearted approach. I thought it just a tad too silly.
The quite substantial but you can't hide introduced the evening's lone male dancers, Nol Simonse and Brendan Barthel. First seen in languid duets, they eventually folded themselves into the women's ensemble. Simonse, sinewy and liquid, was a joy to behold. This was Courage at his best: mirror images for the men, a violent female duet, whispering voices and moonwalks, full body contact, and a finger to a chin.

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