Santa Barbara Dance Theater just returned from their second tour of China. There, the dancers were so well received by host audiences that they are already slated to go back sometime in the coming year. This past weekend, Santa Barbara audiences got a chance to see why UCSB’s Dance Company, who also participated in the international tour, joined SBDT for Cycles, a varied and entertaining performance at Hatlen Theater.
The evening began with “Artifice,” choreographed by SBDT artistic director Jerry Pearson. The visually engaging piece immediately established the company’s signature use of props and technology. Video visuals regrettably detracted somewhat from the dancers, although one of the high points of the performance involved Cybil Gilbertson interacting through movement with the video projection. Wearing a long white hoop skirt, Gilberton slowed when her on-screen counterpart slowed, reached out as though to touch hands with the projected image, and fluidly mirrored the movements of dancers diving into water.
Recently retired UCSB faculty member Tonia Shimin premiered her newest piece, “In Our Own Light,” set to Karen Tanaka’s “At the Grave of Beethoven.” The organic quality of movement allowed SBDT’s performers to exhibit their lyricism, and the result was moving. “In Our Own Light” was possibly the most technically demanding piece of the evening; free from props and visuals, the dancers used only their bodies to communicate drama.
The true highlight of Cycles was Pearson’s “Romeo and Juliet,” set to Tchaikovsky’s powerful “Piano Concerto No. 1. Pearson explained he wanted to combine the melodrama of Shakespeare’s play with silent films, while using props to match the dancers’ emotional architecture. Sarah Pon, who stood out in each piece, danced the part of Juliet to Blake Hennesy-York’s Romeo. The play’s prologue was projected on screen, much like a silent film, but the language soon switched to modern day humor. The props included five pillars constructed of large cardboard boxes, stacked one on top of each other and were used creatively, with dancers arranging them to build scenery and then knocking them over to convey emotional turmoil.
The UCSB Dance Company joined the professional company for “Necessary Losses” and Pearson’s premiere, “The Life Cycle of Trees.” The latter had moments of brilliance, including a human train, where dancers’ linked arms united all 18 bodies into one neat and well-rehearsed series of movement. Video technology once again distracted focus from the dancers, with scenes of the destruction of trees. But the energy of the collective elevated “Life Cycle” to an exceptional effort.