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Dancesmith, Deserving Open Arms

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2004; Page C01

What you notice first about the dancers in Dancesmith are their arms. Not legs or feet or jaw-dropping flexibility but simply the relaxed, fluid way the dancers' arms move and the way this movement complements the music and focuses the eye. The works by Artistic Director Natalie Moffett Smith, whose small local troupe made its Kennedy Center debut Thursday at the Terrace Theater, are full of such pleasing details.

Moffett Smith's company, though only two years old, looks more mature and polished than some of the area's established groups, and this is because of an artful control of every facet of production. Lighting (by Lynn Joslin), costumes (by Judy Hansen), set design, even the sound quality of the recorded music -- too often a sour note in a dance concert -- were of exceptionally high caliber. Most rewarding of all, Moffett Smith's choreography bore the same stamp of meticulous attention, from feet to fingers.

Dancesmith's "Within" benefits from fine performances by, from left, Grissell Suhy, Kristina Windom and Alison Crosby. (Tony Powell -- Dancesmith)

Moffett Smith comes from good lineage -- she danced with two of Washington's most respected companies, Eric Hampton Dance and Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company. Those troupes present two very different styles, but each was led by a choreographer acutely attuned to detail and understatement. Moffett Smith has internalized lessons from each and added her own distinctly emotional shading. This made her "Within," for instance, an extraordinarily penetrating look at three different states of human feeling, as danced by three women (Alison Crosby, Grissell Suhy and Kristina Windom).

The dancers created a taut, strained but emotionally authentic atmosphere, aided by Charlie Barnett's intriguingly acid score. Moffett Smith's choreography maintained musical sensitivity without being numbingly obvious; there were ample moments of surprise. The choreographer also displayed a knack for tailoring movement to each dancer's strengths. The three solos were highly varied yet joined by a sense of soul-baring. Crosby made an especially strong impression here. Leaps and jumps burst out of her like thunderclaps; there is no preparation, no recovery. For years she has been one of the area's most accomplished and fascinating dancers.

"The Gift," which opened the program, served to establish Moffett Smith's careful, harmonious aesthetic, aided by a handsome pair of abstract paintings in muted neutral tones by Helene O'Neil Cobb. This piece, like the tumultuous duet "Together Alone" and the group piece "Disquiet," did not have the sharp-edged originality of "Within." But the evening's highlight, "Fon Fon Odeon," created by Eric Hampton, more than compensated.

This frisky and intensely musical work, set to a swirl of tangos and waltzes by Ernesto Nazareth, was an instant hit when Hampton created it 12 years ago. It retains its brilliance today, thanks to the expert attentions of Harriet Moncure Williams, conservator of Hampton's works, and to the spunk of the cast (Crosby, Moffett Smith, Bruno Augusto, Florian Rouiller and Julia Smith). Before his death in 2001, Hampton had left his mark on the Washington dance community as a choreographer of exceptional skill. How good to see his work live on. How good, also, to see Moffett Smith tread his path with her own honest, thoughtful and elegant contributions.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company