Keen Dance Theatre company members.
Photo-Keen Dance Theatre


‘Tis The Season Holiday Concert
Keen Dance Theater

Review by Kathi E. B. Ellis

Entire contents copyright © 2014 by Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved.

Friday evening, the day after Thanksgiving, John Keen’s eponymous company took to the stage of the Clifton Center with an ambitious program of community-based and professional performances. This is the second performance his company has presented to Louisville audiences, and the first since the company relocated from NYC to Louisville earlier this year.  In his introductory remarks, Keen announced that his is the first modern and contemporary dance company in Louisville. Both the Moving Collective and the, now-defunct, Art Barking Dog Company could lay claim to that assertion – nonetheless it is good that there is another company bringing this genre of dance to our community.

Keen’s company is twelve strong, with two listed in the playbill as apprentices. In the company’s next playbill (or on the company’s website), it would be interesting to see bios of his dancers. He has auditioned here in Louisville so some, presumably, are local. It would be good to lift up those who have received local training as well as to recognize any dancers who relocated from New York with the company. Keen’s vision is “making the arts accessible one step at a time”. His commitment to youth training in addition to bringing into his company performers with potential as well as training lives into this vision.

The first of the three-part program was dedicated to a selection of community-based and ministry-based youth troupes, including the Keen Dance Theater’s KD Kids troupe. Numbering from the very young to late teenage years, the troupes performed to a variety of secular and sacred Christmas music for an audience of delighted friends and family. Of the choreographers listed, several are members of the Keen Dance Theater itself and two, ReGina Garr and Vernell Porter, Jr, also performed in two of the numbers. The final piece of this section, Lord Your Holy, presented the most focused youth performances and embodied fully the sense of its title.

The balance of the program was dedicated to the professional company. Keen has been busy this year – three of the six pieces danced he created in 2014. Part two began with Dance or Die a high-energy ensemble piece reminiscent of his I Heart Dance from the 2013 premiere Louisville performance by the company. Costumed in bright colors that enhanced the kineticism of the company, the dancers filled the stage in waves of verve and color. The first section of the piece was more traditionally balletic and featured Charles Buckner, Jr., a dancer with a beautiful line who was not listed as a company member.

The two other new pieces of Keen choreography, Faded Memories and Redemption were also part of the second movement of the program. The first is a duet, featuring Ra’Shaun Mony Logan and Vernell Porter, Jr. These two dancers created a passionate connection between themselves, one that seemed sharper than the title – until the last moment when unexpectedly, almost awkwardly, the connection was broken as Logan disappeared from the stage leaving Porter in a moment of apparent uncertainty. Redemption is another ensemble piece, which generated a chuckle in its opening moments from Friday night’s audience as the company ‘schlepped’ onstage wearing ragtag pieces of clothing. The full force of the title was revealed as the company peeled off their outer garments, revealing all-white costumes with the choreography, completing the transformation, shifting to expansive, open-bodied movements embodying new possibilities.

Keen’s 2010 A Woman Scorned was reprised from last year’s program. This five-woman piece has the same somber impact from when I first saw it. Logan, Brittany Johnson, Candice Crawford, Gina McMillan, and Shana Howard are an impressive ensemble embodying the physical and psychological wounds of women who have suffered abuse. This piece is a testament to the power of dance to tell stories without words.

The third part of the evening began with the 2013 Filter danced by the company. Rounding out the evening was the three-part Sanctified (2004). The program note states that this is a tribute to Alvin Ailey as well as to Keen’s love of Negro Spirituals. Both aspects are fully demonstrated throughout. The centerpiece is the solo, Freed Slave (to ‘Stepping Stone’), danced by Alexander Betts. Betts confidently fills the stage as the choreography illustrates a future hitherto unattainable. The ensemble is assured in the other two movements, ‘Give Me Jesus’ and ‘Sing Till The Spirit Moves’. From this piece, dating back a decade, to the more recent ones, Keen demonstrates that he has many stories to tell through dance. We can hope that his company will perform more frequently now that Louisville is his home base once again.

Like last year, the performance started significantly later than the published start time (though much earlier than last year’s performance) – this is the one key area in which the company must professionalize itself. When the wait before the beginning of the program is longer than one of the sections of the program, this is a problem. Also, there are still ‘pauses’ between dance pieces that are made longer than is optimal by slow costume changes. If Keen and his staff can manage these logistical challenges more efficiently, audiences will truly be able to enjoy the work of this young and eager modern dance company.


‘Tis The Season Holiday Concert

November 28, 2014

Keen Dance Theatre
At Clifton Center
2117 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40206


kathi e.b. ellis headshot color[box_light]Kathi E.B. Ellis is a member of the Lincoln Center and Chicago Directors’ Labs and an associate member of the Stage Directors & Choreographers Society. She has attended the LaMama Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy, and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding Southern Artists.  Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for the South Florida Theatre Carbonell Award.  Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and is part of ShoeString Productions an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.[/box_light]