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From the Ashes

High- and Low-Tech at Phoenix's Annual Concert

Tripping the Light Fantastic: Sandra Lacey performs two solo pieces during the Phoenix Dance Co.ís performance at UMBC, based on music by Eartha Kitt and Henryk Gorecki

By D.C. Culbertson | Posted 2/16/2000

Once upon a time, there was a dance company at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) called Impetus, directed by faculty member Jeff Duncan. But Impetus eventually ran out of impetus and folded. In its wake, two of its members—Sandra Lacey and Carol Hess— joined forces with fellow UMBC faculty member Liz Walton in 1982 to create another troupe,.which became the Phoenix Dance Co.

Unlike some other area dance companies, Phoenix never performed extensively and, according to Hess, "never was about the work of one particular director." Generally, the group presented one major concert every spring and performed school shows, as well as occasional performances in venues such as Theatre Project. As time went on, Phoenix's original members got involved in their own independent projects. Hess formed Project REACH, which sends dancers into schools for outreach classes and performances. UMBC faculty member Doug Hamby, who had joined the orignal Phoenix founders, formed his own company, Doug Hamby Dance. Lacey wanted to work on both solo pieces and a duo she formed with Texas Women's University professor Mary Williford-Shade. Walton, Hess, and Hamby all gradually gave up performing.

But none wanted to disband Phoenix. So about four or five years ago, the quartet decided to create a nonprofit umbrella organization for all their separate companies, as well as Phoenix, called the UMBC Dance Consortium. And they still present one major concert every year as Phoenix. This year's will take place Feb. 16 through 19 at the UMBC Theatre, with Hamby, Lacey, and Hess each contributing two pieces.

Most of Hamby's work in the past five years has made heavy use of technology in some way. In Calamus, a trio piece for male dancers that will be part of the new show, the audience sees only brief glimpses of dancers Stephen K. Stone, Brian Bagley and Dave Clark, who are partially hidden behind slotted draperies. Most of the time the dancers are only visible as black-and-white video images on a screen, captured live by two video cameras and edited by UMBC grad student Deborah Gorski. Inspired by a Walt Whitman poem, the piece—which premiered at Washington, D.C.'s Dance Place last summer—concentrates on a main character who is dreaming about "being affectionate with other men, dancing with other men, being with other men." Consequently, the choreography features a lot of partnering and physical contact similar to contact improvisation.

The score, composed by Steve Bradley, a UMBC assistant professor of visual arts, was created mostly from an archive of sounds Bradley amassed during a trip to New York by Hamby's company two years ago. "You're unclear as to what the nature of the sound is and where it's coming from," Hamby says. "So that goes very well with the idea of dreaming."

In contrast to Calamus' strong theme, Six Short Pieces, which will be receiving its world premiere during Phoenix's UMBC show, is a purely abstract dance piece, set to chamber pieces by composer William Grant Still. "I've been yearning to use a piece for acoustic instruments where the piece is just about movement, a group of people dancing together and visualizing the music," Hamby says. "I've just wanted to do a group piece that's lyrical and pure movement."

Of Lacey's two solos, Iréne Haultman's Two By Eartha, which Lacey has previously performed at Theatre Project and UMBC, is a lighthearted interpretation of two Eartha Kitt songs; the solo Lacey commissioned flows with a seemingly effortless, fluid kinetic movement that belies its difficulty. Lacey says the choreographer's inspiration for the piece was her childhood recollections of seeing Kitt perform. "I enjoy the movement quality and I enjoy listening to Eartha," Lacey says. "It's a very self-indulgent piece for me to perform."

Dissolve, a solo that David Dorfman Dance company member Jeannine Durning originally created for herself that will also be part of the UMBC show, is of a more intense nature. Set to music by contemporary composer Henryk Gorecki, the piece consists of a number of "pictures" in which "the quality of movement changed from one picture to another," Lacey says, with the dancer spinning between each image. "If you just want to look at it very abstractly and very simply, it's about transformations," she says. "You can also look at it from a dramatic point of view" and see a character "who's struggling to hold onto her sense of self . . . a personality who's dissolving, going in and out of reality."

Like Hamby, Hess also frequently uses video in her works. Shibboleth, a new collaboration between her and UMBC visual-arts professor Vin Grabill that will be included in the UMBC show, had an unlikely inspiration: the image of a woman dancing in a cornfield. The work was shot piecemeal from June 1999 to January 2000 in a Howard County field belonging to the University of Maryland School of Agriculture. As she began working on the piece, Hess says she "started reading about corn and rituals and found all these interesting things"—ranging from the fact that Greek earth goddess Demeter was often depicted holding a sheaf of corn, to a friend's recollection of her parents threatening to "send her into the corn field" when she misbehaved as a child.

In the piece, dancer Emily Giza is first seen in a bare field, then through the growing stages of the corn, and finally in a bare field again. During the video shoot Giza wore the same dress, which never got washed, and didn't cut her hair—the intended effect being that "she was aging with the cornfield," Hess says.

That Phoenix's decision to cut back on performances was more artistic than financial doesn't mean its members haven't been affected by the dwindling financial support for dance. As a group of artists in residence, Hamby says, the company is funded "in a small way" by UMBC and can use the school's rehearsal space for free, but "part of the reason we haven't worked [more] is because there's very little funding right now." Hess agrees: "Baltimore's hard. There's not a lot of opportunity for dancers. . . . It's harder and harder to find sponsors."

The Phoenix Dance Co. performance will take place at the UMBC Theatre Feb. 16-19 at 8 P.M. Tickets are $10 general, $6 for students and seniors. For more information, call (410) 455-6240 or visit

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