Saturday, October 1, 2016
PSI Theatre, Durham

What’s the appropriate context of a dance showcase? Is it a gallery where we view (and, inevitably, compare) art works placed alongside one another? A hothouse where different specimens at different stages of development can be observed? Can it provide a preview or forecast of changing times in a creative ecosystem?

Over its three-year run, the Emergence series at PSI Theatre has served these as well as other functions. Kristi Vincent Johnson’s well-named initiative, an outgrowth of her Triangle Dance Project, has provided a place for developing choreographers to emerge in the regional dance scene. After displaying early work here, dance makers including Justin Tornow and Kristin Taylor have climbed to positions of prominence or leadership in the dance community.

This year, it was the local professional premiere of newcomer Ashley McCullough that had me circling names in my playbill. While the other acts in this adjudicated showcase possessed varying levels of technical prowess and artistic vision, in Conscious Oblivion, McCullough demonstrated clear, unshakable command of both.

Granted, that result was a bit easier to achieve with advanced dancers like Anthony Otto Nelson Jr. and DIDA artist Jasmine Powell, both of whom appeared this spring in Powell’s Shadows Chasing Light. As he first walked downstage, Nelson’s percussive body slaps and finger snaps contrasted with legato, helical arm and upper-body twists; both were punctuated by crisp hand gestures and brisk, decisive stage sculpting that probed and stretched the limits of his kinesphere—the space around his body that his torso and extremities could possibly explore.

When Powell joined him onstage, dressed in vivid yellow, her character suggested a muse whose hands, unseen at first, draw Nelson’s character back to consciousness and then gracefully manipulate his incipient awareness. The challenging unison sequences in their mid-work duet, set to Kaitlin June’s pensive, propulsive music, were executed with precision. McCullough’s choreography evoked the mysteries and delights of early love in a fusion of childhood games and balletic extensions, turns, and leaps before an ambiguous end.

In other notable works, Charlotte choreographer Rachel Barker roasted recent and long-standing clichés of modern choreography in the satirical duet Back of Your Neck; Jaylun Moore evinced further growth with the bracing theatrics of her earnest racial meditation, Wake Up; and Audrey Baran carefully probed the painful psychological landscape of Regina Spektor’s “Chemo Limo” in her revealing solo, Door Closed.