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Immersed: The Story Behind the Dance

Beyond Ballroom Dance Company

By Libby Ryan

A photo of Julie Jacobson and Jay Larson embracing
When you are a ballroom dancer, the melody of a certain song holds the power to change your mood almost in an instant. A tango will fill you with anger, a swing lights you up with energy, and a waltz pulls you into a subtle sadness. Often, though, ballroom dance is viewed through short snatches of these moods. At a showcase or competition, dancers put on the feeling of the dance like they might put on a costume. It is a critical part of the performance. But at the opening night of Beyond Ballroom Dance Company’s eleventh season, the company brought the audience with them into the stories behind the dances performed on the Cowles Center stage.

The first act of Beyond Ballroom’s show, Crossing Moon River, directed by Deanne Michael and Lisa Vogel, infused the waltz with new energy. The show opened with a traditional waltz set to the iconic song “Moon River,” filled with the sad joy that characterizes the waltz.

When the music changed to R. Kelly’s “Turn Back the Hands of Time,” the mood in the theater shifted obviously. What had been a beautiful performance of technical dance took on new life in Chris Kempainen and Bonnie Inveen’s movements. Now it was about the story. The west coast swing influence in their Viennese waltz showcased the natural connection in Kempainen and Inveen’s partnership. Their faces carried the story of the music, while their movement seemed to be the only way to express a terrible, hopeful longing for even the briefest reunion of a lost love.

Crossing Moon River took the audience through story after story, in style after style. A group ballet number moved with sweetness and naiveté, a performance that belonged in a Prohibition-era speakeasy put a spell on the audience, and April Dahl and her sparkly combat boots added an edge to a love story in a mash-up of country two-step and Viennese waltz. Each song was unique in style and attitude, but what created the dreamlike aura in the piece was the dancers’ ability to connect to the emotion of the music and choreography to tell their own stories.

The second act, He Said ... She Said ..., was choreographed, directed, and performed by two guest artists, Tsha Marie and Andrew Wennet, along with the ensemble of Beyond Ballroom dancers. The piece incorporated modern burlesque choreography into the predominantly Latin piece, giving a glimpse into a story that ended too quickly. Watching Marie and Wennet dance together was magical; extremely complicated movements seemed to simply come into existence because of the chemistry between the two dancers.

The slapstick charm of Wennet’s acting had the audience erupting into laughter within moments of the first song. By watching his clumsy attempts, we couldn’t help rooting for him to succeed in gaining the attention of the mysterious girl at the dance studio. Marie, in turn, captivated the audience with a solo where her every movement was hypnotic.

The audience was released from the spell of Marie and Wennet's love story only to be drawn into fantasyland with a reprise of the company’s 2010 piece, Red Riding Hood Suite. The performance started off with the well-known tale of Little Red but soon erupted into a hilariously sinister, fractured fairytale.

Grandma (Julie Jacobson) was not a feeble old woman in this retelling, nor was Little Red Riding Hood (Deanne Michael) simply sweet. It was impossible not to be on the edge of your seat as the story unfolded, with the Wolf (Jay Larson) seducing Little Red and the remarkably sassy Grandma seducing the Wolf. And both ladies packed a mean punch behind their cleverly choreographed dances, as was obvious in the final scene of the show: a paso doble where the womanizing Wolf was kicked to the curb.
Jacobson, Michael, and Larson ended the show with a playful bang, using impressive technique and quirky choreography to tell the modern fable.

If Beyond Ballroom aims to break through the traditional boundaries of ballroom dance, this latest show succeeds and leaves the audience with a connection to the performance that is deeper than simple awe of technical beauty. The entire show felt similar to the traditional ballet format, sweeping the audience up into the world onstage and the events unfolding in front of them. We don’t leave the theater thinking of the choreography; instead we remember the stories.