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Review: Wingrove Dance

Local choreographer Margaret Wingrove added new dimensions to Dickens' 'Great Expectations' in weekend dance concert

TO CHARACTERIZE the Margaret Wingrove Dance Company’s vision of the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations: it’s not overly joyous. People struggle on the ground level, rolling, huddling, holding their bodies, negotiating their limbs. Even at standing level, characters seem bowed, movements labored, as if through sticky webs of restriction or melancholy. And just beyond them we see light-filled doorways or windows (lighting designer Richard Larsen). There’s a larger sense of dance paused by storytelling, or constrained by voice-overs and ballet mime. “It’s like a silent movie,” said one elderly viewer of last weekend’s performance.

From her opening salvo, Wingrove declares her intention to take a more internal, psychodynamic look at Dickens’ socioeconomic portrait. She does it with an element of surprise. Magwitch (Michael Howerton) does not “jump out” at young Pip (Diego Blanc) as the voice-over by Kevin Kennedy announces; he slogs, stooped over his leg chains. Unlike Dickens’ brute, Howerton’s escaped prisoner puts a fatherly hand on Pip’s head. And freed from his chains, Magwitch dances with them, holding them fondly or folding them with care. As a character whose life path will take him to wealth and back to prison, Magwitch shows a need for the boundaries of the chains.

Likewise, Lori Seymour dances in relation to her wedding gown, as Miss Havisham on her wedding day. Her solo has none of the leaps and skips of a lighthearted bride. Instead, taut, wide-ranging floor moves show a tension between bodily freedom—stretching, extending—and control or design—placing, posing. She arranges, then rearranges her raised, bent legs, with a sense of forcing herself to be precisely this, not that. She echoes this sense when she makes a quick readjustment before settling into her wedding gown with a steely pose. This is the way Dickens shows her, years later, a jilted and bitter old maid. But Wingrove seems to use these solos to suggest that character, not circumstance, has determined life’s path.

Meanwhile, Wingrove’s choreography of duets dissects the stumbling human quest for the perfect relational “fit.” As characters go from mismatch to perfect match, parallel moves reveal the contrasts. Most interesting is Pip’s household. Pip grows up with a live-in teacher, Biddy (Amy Briones), under the guardianship of the kindly Joe (Brendan Barthel) and his abusive wife (Andrea Moody). Moody’s pained expressions suggest not a shrew but someone in love with grief. Moody rejects or is unaffected by Joe’s support, his hunched self-effacement, his concerned touch, his kneeling offers of support. Likewise, Biddy finds that Pip only obligingly supports her impressive, muscular, 180-degree leg lifts. Whereas Biddy has thrown herself on Pip’s back, clutching, she later melts onto the widowed Joe’s offered back and easily drops into Joe’s kneeling support, following him to ground level in embrace.

Two longer duets have strong narrative power: a battle for control between Miss Havisham and her adopted daughter, Estella (Shaina Leibson), and a final battle for Estella’s soul between the adult Pip (Robert Raney) and Estella. These are full of remarkable swooshes—Seymour’s facial and body language as Havisham sucks in Estella’s man-eating charm; Leibson’s zombielike flat-footed walk as an older broken Estella; the build-up and heroic shoulder lift of Ballet San Jose dancers Raney and Leibson. Their return to classic, balletic beauty amid majestic horns seems to signal Pip’s and Estella’s return to their essential selves. This fascinating program defies expectations, great or otherwise.