Of all the art forms, dance may be the most difficult to transmit. The most sophisticated methods of notation offer little more than a shadow of the dance, and even video technology fails to deliver a complete, three-dimensional representation of the body in motion. The only way for a dance to survive fully is in the body of the dancer, which is why great dances are taught by those who danced them.
Last week, audiences had the rare privilege of watching a modern dance masterpiece: José Limón’s “The Moor’s Pavane,” from 1949. Under the direction of Christopher Pilafian, Santa Barbara Dance Theater (SBDT) has spent months working with former Limón dancer and UCSB professor emeritus Alice Condodina to reconstruct the work.
More than 60 years after its premiere, “The Moor’s Pavane” returned to life at Haltlen Theater in all its splendor and drama. Tracy Kofford danced the role of the moor with assured command, while Christina Sanchez gave a riveting performance as his wrongly accused and anguished wife. Monica Ford and Kyle Castillo brought full dramatic investment and powerful precision to their roles as the scheming couple whose lies lead to a calamitous downfall. The brilliance of this work is in the way simple movement phrases and geometrical arrangements are imbued with deep emotion, and the dancers of SBDT captured the nuance of Limón’s choreography beautifully. In elaborate period costumes borrowed from Pacific Northwest Ballet — heavy gowns and puffed sleeves for the women; velvet robes and tunics for the men — these four conjured a stirring vision from dance history, and at the same time pointed to SBDT’s ever-brighter future.
Programmatically, Time in Motion framed this classic work with two premieres from Pilafian: “Smolder,” a passionate, brooding quintet set to the romantic strains of Rachmaninoff, and “Spark to Shine,” which lifted the evening’s tone from gravitas to buoyancy. In “Smolder,” SBDT’s newest member, Lindsay Mason, joined the aforementioned four as latent intensity built. Dressed in deep reds, the dancers seemed to press against empty space, reaching out with limbs like licking flames, only to collapse back in with a swirl of the head.
For the evening’s conclusion, four members of the undergraduate dance program joined SBDT in “Spark to Shine,” a playful work featuring inflatable pool toys, a bunch of red balloons, and a dizzying number of costume changes. Set to an eclectic mix of ‘70s disco and electronica, “Spark to Shine” alternated sections of pure dance with moments of physical comedy, as when Ford entered in a silk slip, pushing a shopping cart loaded with dancers.
With a cast of accomplished, committed dancers and a repertory that ranges from sassy to sublime, Pilafian has made it clear he’s taking this company places.