Dan Higgins’ new work Speak, which opened Dec. 12 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, looks like it might have been made for his employer, Repertory Dance Theatre (it was sponsored by RDT, as part of the company’s Link Series for independent choreographers). The seventy-minute dance, in its finer moments, brought to mind teenage memories of seeing that company. There was a pleasure in watching the eight dancers — four women and four men — swim through the project of being together on stage for more than an hour.
At the outset, we heard a disembodied Higgins reminding us to silence our phones. Then he enjoined us to look over our left shoulder, to take stock of what we smelled, to revisit a recent significant decision we’ve taken in our own lives. Soon we were watching six black benches being rearranged on white marley floor. Eight dancers folded and unfolded, glided and slowly toppled, were careful and precise in the harmonics where they faced, how they followed a looping initiation from elbow to knee to fingertips, in and out of unison.
There was a spareness and a wakefulness in this first scene that I didn’t expect. The air was cut by a leggy, bouncy solo from Emma Eileen Hansen. A frontal assault of technical prowess changed hands a few times and eventually gave way to a tactical confrontation between the men and the women — a study in changing focus and walking on the beat. The benches lined up like chess pieces.
The lithe Mar Undag and Jaclyn Brown disappeared smoothly behind these black slats of wood — moments like this returned to the spirit of the first five minutes. Higgins sometimes got lost. He sometimes relied too heavily on the kind of music that stands in the background and tells you vaguely how to feel without saying much else. But he made a believable seventy-minute dance. There were no big questions, but I respected getting to see these eight talented dancers coexisting and, at times, rising to the occasion of play.
Speak was at its best when it didn’t know where it was going. One section comes to mind where the conceit of a common struggle gave way to chaos. A meandering trumpet (the music for the piece was by Michael Wall) whirled through the air under a series of harried runs across the stage — six-second character studies from Brendan Rupp, Micah Burkhardt, Bailey Sill, Jonathan Kim, and Morgan Phillips.
Higgins knows how to use stillness to effect. Sometimes, I wish he would lean into that more than other implements of the scholastic modern-dance toolbox. The ending: Higgins himself came out and picked up where his opening speech left off, recounting a vague fable about a boy bravely jumping over an infinite void. This was a little much, but I can forgive him. The fleet-footed romping of his cast was enough.
Dan Higgins, Speak, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Dec. 12 & 13.
This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org.
Samuel Hanson is the executive director of loveDANCEmore.