John Keen & Company. Photo courtesy of Keen Dance Theater.

Keen Dance Theater at Ursuline Arts Center

Reviewed by Kathi E. B. Ellis.

Entire contents are copyright © 2013 Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

The Keen Dance Theatre performance on Friday evening (January 25) was, in a sense, a homecoming for founder John Keen, who is a Louisville native and who studied at the Youth Performing Arts School. It was also an introduction to Louisville dance aficionados of his New York-based high-energy ensemble dance company. There are few Louisville-based dance companies, and The Kentucky Center’s touring dance program brings in fewer companies than in past years. As such, this event was a welcome event to Louisville’s dance calendar. However, there were too many glitches throughout the evening for this to be a completely successful event.

Advertised at 7:30p.m., it was not until 8:20p.m. that Mr. Keen’s father took to the stage to acknowledge that the program was starting late. With an audience that numbered many family and friends within it, allowances will be made for any challenges facing the company.  But expecting the audience to wait for almost an hour after the published start time, with no public explanation, is taking loyalty and patience too much for granted. 

In addition, there were technical problems throughout the evening. On several occasions, the wrong soundtrack began, once in the middle of a dance piece, leaving dancers waiting on stage to begin a new sequence.  Light cues seemed somewhat random, suggesting that the company was adapting to what the Ursuline Performing Arts Center already had programmed rather than implementing a design that was created for each dance.  Although the program indicated that there would be a ‘pause’ between each piece, Mr. Keen needs to consider costume changes as he arranges the program in order to diminish the awkwardness of those pauses.

The highlight of the evening for me was the most recent piece in the program, the eponymously named Keen (2013).  In this piece, the ensemble was, indeed, at its most keen. Costumed in brilliant blue, with swirling movements that at times paying homage to African dance forms, the dancers were at their most cohesive, and Mr. Keen’s choreography was at its most sophisticated. In this piece, his command of the ensemble as a whole together with the variations for smaller combinations of dancers lifted the evening to its highest level; the final image of the company was stark and specific, and brought an almost audible gasp from the audience.

The one piece in the program not choreographed by Mr. Keen was J. P. Flores’ Breathing and he also danced the piece. Set to Pachelbel’s Canon, this piece suggests that dance is indeed the breath of life, with fluid movements from the most expansive to the most contracted. Mr. Flores is one of KDT’s most assured dancers, and this solo piece naturally plays to his strengths as a dancer. There were two other solo pieces in the program, both named for the respective songs on which they were set. (More information about music selections would have been a welcome addition to the program notes.) In the first half, Maeve Boldron danced Nobody Does It Better. Ms. Boldron brought intensity and a playful sexiness to this piece that caught the audience’s attention. Steven Jeudy danced Someone To Watch Over Me in the second half, a piece that suggests both the need for that someone and the loneliness when that someone does not materialize. Mr. Keen has clearly choreographed this specifically for Mr. Jeudy, highlighting his extension and pirouettes, specialties that were also showcased each time this dancer performed.

The other pieces in the program were four ensemble pieces. The evening began with Apocalyptica, which unfortunately had the most technical glitches, interrupting the flow of the three-part piece, two ensemble sequences interspersed with a solo by Mr. Flores.  In his program notes, Mr. Keen talks of his organic process, creating space for the dancers’ natural reactions to shape the pieces. Coupled with the range of experience within his company, this is not always felicitous. At times, the kinesthetic responses ripple through the ensemble in a way that supports the moment; at other times, it just looks as if some dancers are not quite in sync with the others. And this was most noticeable in this piece. Much more powerful was the all-female A Woman Scorned. Described as a piece in which women deal with emotional and physical wounds, the dancers clearly had internalized these conditions, and this was the most somber piece of the evening. The two pieces that bracketed part two of the evening get to the essence of this company – they love to dance – I Heart Dance and 4 On The Floor.  The first number was a joyful celebration of dancing culminating in a final image that brought the dancers into a traditional circle with Mr. Jeudy in characteristic pose in the center. The evening ended with an exuberant homage to disco; with jewel-tone costumes that took us back in time, the dancers individualized their disco moves within an overall arc of dance party music. Their enjoyment of this final piece was palpable and engaging.

Keen Dance Theater

January 25, 2013

At The Ursuline Arts Center

3114 Lexington Road

Louisville, KY 40206