Review: Gin Dance Company’s ‘Dance, Champagne and Chocolate with Gin’ at the BalletNova Center for Dance

Gin Dance Company’s Dance, Champagne and Chocolate with Gin program felt a little bit like flicking between emoticons: determined, eyebrows scrunched emoji? Hmm, aloof? What about giggling emoji? Mischievous? Winking emoji? No, surprise – sad face. In its seventh season, under the leadership of Artistic Director Shu-Chen Cuff, this contemporary company displayed a wide range of human emotions through its sculptural style based in ballet and Asian dance technique, a combination Cuff describes as “Eastern philosophy blended with Western fluidity of movement and culture.” The trait that flashes as the best fit for this group: humor.

Dancers Julia Hellmich, Michelle Conroy, Elizabeth Childers, and Hannah Church. Photo by Ruth Judson.

Burgundy, artfully aggressive, choreographed by Cuff, showcased the strong ballet-based technique of some of its dancers. Dressed in red, Alison Grant and Therese Gahl, both advanced, kicked off the proceedings with flair and no-nonsense développés. Though they veered out of sync a few times, the rhythmic musical pulse would guide them back together. With further strength in numbers, the ensemble proceeded through the sequence and pattern driven choreography, which was inextricably linked to the music. Arms plucked from fifth to the hips happened with the pluck of a cello chord, time and again, in careful chemistry. Though the dancers looked almost austere for most of the piece, some of the most refreshing and interesting moments were when that seriousness broke – for playful exchanges. Hannah Church brought a particularly inviting grace to the stage, and seemed less focused on the steps than on performing them. Cuff, also elegantly dancing in this piece, shared a sisterly moment with Gahl before the lights went dim. Hips frozen in a jaunty shake, arms crossed, their bodies spoke: sure, guess we’re done here.

In the world premiere of Cuff’s second piece, Connect, Disconnect, Breanne Coughlin, who trained with Alexandria Ballet and The Washington Ballet and danced as a corps member of Ballet Arizona, explored the theme of technology in our digital age clad in pointe shoes. After a strain of silence, the music was anxious, monotone. Coughlin’s athletic strength was not only evident, but consistent, throughout – a feat given the longer length of the solo. Yet, the theme proved too subtle. Her gaze shifted to the audience and away again, as if preventing her from connection – perhaps to reflect all of our shortening attention spans.

Dancer Breanne Coughlin. Photo by Ruth Judson.

Then it was on to Hello, Goodbye, where the company moved into their sweet spot. Cuff, again the choreographer, conceived the piece as an ode to Mary Ann Mears’s twisting, bright yellow sculpture, “Reston Rondo” which was dedicated at Hyatt Park in 2014. Costumed in highlighter pastel colors and even wearing headbands with tiny bows, these mature dancers channeled their inner kid. The Gin dancers, all with some level of ballet background, set about poking fun at themselves. They milked the port de bras, so much so the audience laughed in the silences. Characteristic “ballet” hugs devolved into scratching and clawing – then back to hugs and smiles. It all wouldn’t have been funny if the ballet technique weren’t there to begin with, but it is.

When Cuff took the microphone and time to personally thank the audience at BalletNova after Hello, Goodbye (another long piece, to the testament of the group), she was winded – but suddenly, several seconds into her monologue, it became clear that the humor trickles top-down in this company. Cuff charmed the audience with her enthusiasm, jokes and ability to soldier on, even though she needed a minute.

The final piece, a world premiere of Cuff’s The Other Side, reunited the gals – this time, in separate friend groups. Three hung out on a park bench stage left; one met her friend to show her a wedding ring center stage; and one tapped her foot, exasperated, when the other was late to arrive at stage right (Gahl, with expressive face and body language, conveyed tardy through well-executed comic timing).

Kristi Liu, Alissa Dill, and Julia Hellmich. Photo by Ruth Judson.

Given the bubbles of light satire floating through much of the evening’s choreography, the transition in this piece from upbeat to down felt too abrupt, and almost facetious – at first – wait – what happened. All of a sudden, one friend from each group collapsed, only to be replaced later by her “ghost” (the same dancer, dressed in white).

It was disorienting for several beats, until the melancholy fully swept in and each group, accustomed to a routine, dealt with someone’s absence. The separate friendships, defined by a certain sequence of movement, resorted to repeating these sequences – but it was slower this time, weighed by grief. Though tepid at first, the ghosts eventually stepped closer and closer to their friends on earth, until their steps synced and all formed diagonal lines and switched places, moving across and in and out.

Through myriad feelings, Cuff and the Gin dancers move together – with humor as their best ally.

Gin Dance Company: Dance, Champagne, and Chocolate with Gin played Saturday, October 21 at 7:30 p.m., at the Fredgren Studio Theater at BalletNova Center for Dance, 3443 Carlin Springs Road, in Falls Church, VA. For more information about upcoming performances, visit them online.

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