CityDance Studio Theater at Strathmore, North Bethesda, MA; January 10, 2015

Carmel Morgan

Top (l-r): Dana Pajarillaga, Diana Amalfitano; Bottom (l-r): Robert J. Priore, Matthew McLaughlin. Photo © EnMotion Photography

Top (l-r): Dana Pajarillaga, Diana Amalfitano; Bottom (l-r): Robert J. Priore, Matthew McLaughlin.
Photo © EnMotion Photography

In a program titled “Ascendance”, a handful of professional dancers joined students and alumni of the CityDance School & Conservatory, where Robert J. Priore is the Choreographer-in-Residence and OnStage Ignite artist (recipient of support in the creation and performance of new work), to present an evening of Priore’s original choreography. Priore, a 2009 BFA graduate of Point Park University and current dancer with Company E, a DC-based contemporary dance company, is a rising choreographic talent. He definitely displays a knack for challenging students and showing off their skills, while also making the more seasoned dancers look great.

My favorite work on the program was “Forgetting the Ones that Didn’t”, a duet between Priore and Kyoko Ruch, a former apprentice with the Richmond Ballet who dances professionally in the DC-area with Company E and Company Danzante. Ruch clung to Priore at first. She wrapped her body around him in a tight embrace and curled atop him on the floor. Priore’s arm often was placed around her neck, elbow beneath her chin, and he frequently carried her lifted above him, while she dangled vertically. When he approached her from her behind and aggressively bumped her, I understood that the menacing tinge would turn even darker. Their tumultuous relationship was alarming, and I found myself cheering for Ruch to find her independence. In the end, she did finally escape, but it was haunting how her own hands grabbed at her neck, recalling the recently severed relationship.

Another favorite was the final work on the program, “Abandon”, a quartet performed by two Company E dancers, Vanessa Owen and Gavin Stewart, and sibling pair Dana and Kevin Pajarillaga (Dana is a 2013 graduate of the CityDance Conservatory and a student of the Juilliard School, Class of 2017; Kevin is also a CityDance alumni and a member of the class of 2016 at Point Park University). Both Pajarillagas are beautiful dancers with a powerful stage presence. Although I certainly hope they return to the DC area after they graduate, their dance career options ought to be abundant. The dancers wore all black – tank tops, long skirts with thigh-high slits, knee pads, and socks. To a pounding bass beat, they bounced buoyantly like boxers on their toes ready to fight, the movement resembling elegant sparring. The dancers flew up from the floor as well as tore through the air above them, popping around like kernals of popcorn. The rock-solid dancers and the dynamic choreography equaled pure dance-watching joy.

Dana Pajarillaga. Photo © EnMotion Photography

Dana Pajarillaga.
Photo © EnMotion Photography

“Divided We Stand”, a striking piece with nine dancers that opened the program, also packed a strong punch. The Pajarillagas joined other CityDance alumni, including the stunning Alexandra Grayson and Colleen Hoerle. The entire group brought tremendous spark to the stage. The music (Modern Persian Speech Sounds by Omid Walizadeh) was loud and hip-hop inspired. The costumes consisted of shorts and tops in grayish tones, and the women’s tops were cropped. The work demanded a hefty dose of attitude, which the dancers perfectly delivered. I felt a sort of rousing primal energy emerge. Dancers sometimes covered their faces or foreheads with a hand, or used a hand to grasp at their heart. There was plenty of musculature in action as they executed demanding physical sequences, and some fun quirky head tilts.

Priore seems particularly adept at manipulating large numbers of dancers, and other pieces on the program that used large groups also proved entertaining. For example, the uplifting and colorful “Baiana”, to a catchy Brazilian tune of the same name by the body percussion ensemble Barbatuques, had an addictive rhythm. The dancers even playfully participated in the jubilant vocalizations. In “La Fete des Chats”, a cheerful work in which dancers in lively prints likely nabbed from a thrift store kicked up their heels to Klezmer music and other rollicking folksy songs, Priore added charm and humor. Although some of the group formations began to look similar (a pyramid-style clump of dancers with one dancer at the front and the rest staggered behind kept appearing), the impact of such tight-knit unison sections performed in a heap was such that I didn’t mind repeated viewings.

In sum, it was a true treat to see an emerging choreographer shine along with outstanding students and soon-to-be dance graduates preparing to launch professional careers. Priore’s choreography demonstrated real craft, and I remained engaged throughout the lengthy production. I appreciated a lot of his choices. The music he selected, like the movement he created, was eclectic and appealing. Most impressive, maybe, was his obvious passion for boldness and his ability to stretch his dancers. The student dancers grabbed one’s attention, and the more mature dancers certainly did, too. In the case of the more experienced dancers, Priore gave them more subtle movement and expression, of course, but there were moments in every piece, no matter what level the dancer, in which one could simply indulge in the glorious intoxication of dance.  If that’s not the mark of a good choreographer, I don’t know what is.