Theaters in downtown Madison may be packed with moviegoers for the last days of the Wisconsin Film Festival, but a different kind of show -- one that merges storytelling with modern dance and pure souls with fallen angels -- also is on stage this weekend at the Overture Center.
Kanopy Dance Company’s “Dark Nights: Tanztheater” is a live “dance theater” festival with genres from Greek mythology and medieval liturgical drama to Gothic horror and science fiction comedy-thriller. In addition to the Kanopy dancers and directors, the show features guest directors Amit Lahav and Natalie Ayton from the Britain-based Gecko Theatre Company, composer Vicky Tzoumerka-Knoedler and dancer and founding Kanopy member Vivian Tomlinson.
Two of the four pieces in “Dark Nights” are premieres, including “Ikaros,” which opens the show. Choreographed by Robert E. Cleary, the dance tells the story of the Greek legend Icarus to music by Greek-born guest composer Tzoumerka-Knoedler. Ikaros’ aged father, Daedalas (Tomlinson), dances gingerly as if walking a tightrope before clashing with the contrasting strength of the Minotaur (Edgar Molino). Grace and youth enter a vision of the past as a younger Daedalas (Juan Carlos Díaz Vélez) and Ikaros (Isaac Robertson) leap, spin and circle around in their “wax wings.”
In contrast to the clean, linear style of “Ikaros,” the next piece, “Black Angels,” choreographed by Lisa Andrea Thurrell, adopts a more chaotic style. “Lost souls” in torn shirts writhe and romp in frenzied orbit around the Queen of Babylon (Meg Johnson), who in black velvet and blood-colored lace resembles a cross between a bride of Dracula and Kali, the Hindu goddess of death. The twisted, angular poses of the queen and her dark minions are softened by a more gentle, ethereal presence of the “White Angels.”
“The Maw,” also choreographed by Thurrell, is the most lyrical of the four dances. It tells the story of a “Fallen” man to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and tango music by Astor Piazzolla. Díaz Vélez shines as the Fallen, starting out wrapped in a cocoon of purple cloth and gradually unraveling the shroud as he dances to freedom.
The show ends with the feature presentation and other premiere of the evening, “Monkey see Monkey do,” created by Gecko Theatre, directed by Lahav and Ayton, and performed brilliantly by the Kanopy dancers. This finale is true “dance theater,” putting the dancers’ line delivery, comic timing and dramatic pull to the test. The story mixes fictional neuroscience with a Cartesian philosophy of the soul, as a scientist (Díaz Vélez) is bribed into exchanging the rotten soul of his benefactor’s wife for the pure, white soul of an innocent girl (Yoshie Fujimoto-Kateada). From a Broadway-style group dance to the wrenching duet where Díaz Vélez extracts the soul from Fujimoto-Kateada, this piece includes as much humor, drama and thought-provoking that one could hope for in a good festival film -- or Tanztheater storyline.