May 17--As one of the fine arts, dance -- like classical music and opera -- is often perceived as a hard sell. Yet the beauty of dance is that, as an art form that emphasizes the spectacle of bodies in motion, it transcends boundaries of language and background. All the viewer has to do is be open to the experience.
Persuading thousands of people to do so has been the mission of the Spring to Dance Festival, which was established by Dance St. Louis in 2008 and has become a Memorial Day weekend tradition. Held on both stages of the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, the three-night festival presents 30 professional dance companies -- at a ticket price of just $15 (originally $10) per night.
Spring to Dance survived the U.S. financial crisis of 2008, and in recent years some performances have attracted sellout crowds. The fact that the festival is returning for a seventh edition proves that there is indeed a growing audience for dance, said Michael Uthoff, artistic and executive director of Dance St. Louis.
"It's exceeded our expectations," he said, noting that the event has quickly become part of the circuit that companies rely on to get their work seen.
"They've seen the value of the festival -- that they're going to be looked at by agents and presenters that they wouldn't have been able to otherwise," Uthoff said. Spring to Dance was inspired by Fall for Dance, a festival presented annually in autumn at New York City Center.
As in past years, the majority of the companies hail from the Midwest -- among them the St. Louis-based Big Muddy Dance Company, MADCO and St. Louis Ballet and the Chicago ensembles DanceWorks Chicago, Elements Contemporary Ballet and Joel Hall Dancers. But the lineup also includes companies from as far afield as New York and San Francisco.
Of particular note are performances by Ballet Memphis, whose production of "Wizard of Oz" was presented by Dance St. Louis in January to popular and critical success, and Camille A. Brown & Dancers, which is based in Queens, New York, and will bring a company premiere to the festival.
On Thursday night, Ballet Memphis will perform "Oz" choreographer Steven McMahon's "Confluence," set to music by Antonin Dvorak, Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples.
"The piece is about moving from one place to another, making a home and community," McMahon said. Although the combination of classical music by Dvorak and gospel music by Jackson and Staples may come across as eccentric, McMahon said that in his research he discovered that the composer's "New World Symphony" was influenced by African-American spirituals.
On Friday night, Camille A. Brown & Dancers will perform "Memories," a duet that choreographer-dancer Brown created as a commission from Complexions Contemporary Ballet. It will be the first time her dancers are seen in the piece, which is inspired in part by a quote from author Edward de Bono: "A memory is what is left when something happens and does not completely unhappen."
"I just thought it was such a beautiful quote," said Brown, who performed solo at last year's festival. "And it encompasses the whole idea of what a memory means to me, and to other people." The duet will feature Brown and Marlena Wolfe.
Uthoff said he has "great trust" in Brown's talent, and cites "Memories" as an example of the festival's commitment to allowing artists to take risks.
"I wouldn't allow just anybody to do that," he said. "But in her case, no problem."
Spring to Dance Festival
When: 6 to 7 p.m. and 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through May 24
Where: Lee Theater and Anheuser-Busch Performance Hall, Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 8001 Natural Bridge Road
How much: $15 per night
More info: 314-516-4949 or touhill.org; 314-534-6622 or dancestlouis.org
Waiting in the wings: The 2014-2015 Dance St. Louis season
The series will return in the fall with productions at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center and the Fox Theatre. For subscription and single ticket information: 314-534-6622 or dancestlouis.org.
Oct. 10-11: New Dance Horizons III, Touhill. The showcase for local companies will feature new work performed by the Big Muddy Dance Company, MADCO and St. Louis Ballet.
Oct. 21-Nov. 2: Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage, Fox. The dance-oriented 1987 film becomes a full-blown musical in this co-presentation with the Fox Theatre.
Nov. 7-8: Dance Theatre of Harlem, Touhill. One of the classic New York ballet companies, in recent years Dance Theatre of Harlem has recaptured its glory and captivated audiences.
Jan. 30-31, 2015: Tango Buenos Aires, Touhill. There's nothing quite as romantic as the tango, as performed by a company that gets to the essence of that spellbinding dance style.
Feb. 27-28: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Touhill. The company has been praised for taking a fresh approach to ballet while respecting the timeless values that make the art form what it is.
April 10-11: Stomp, Fox. Who knew that brooms and garbage cans could be put to such rhythmic purposes? The popular show returns to St. Louis in a co-presentation with the Fox.
April 24-25: Compagnie Kafig, Touhill. The ensemble inspired by hip-hop culture has also incorporated a wide range of other dance styles into its approach -- from bossa nova to Bollywood.
May 22-24: Spring to Dance Festival 2015, Touhill. The Memorial Day weekend event comes back for an eighth edition.
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