A company based out of Philadelphia shook up UNLV’s studio theater on Feb. 25 and 26 with classic modern dance that was spiked with contemporary twists. Jeanne Ruddy, a former member of Martha Graham’s company, choreographed a piece, with additional works by Zvi Gotheiner, Jane Comfort and Peter Sparling and Janet Lilly comprising the first half of the concert. A preview of the UNLV-generated “Dancescapes” took over the second act.

Janet Philla in "Significant Soil"

For being separate entities, the two sections were remarkably well-matched. The show began with “Significant Soil,” a solo choreographed by Ruddy and danced by Janet Philla or Christine Taylor, depending on the concert. The piece played on novelty a bit with a man-sized coil dangling from the ceiling and stretched the length of the stage, but the prop was tastefully incorporated. The movement was breath-centered and emotional, depicting inner torment well and reminding the audience why, exactly, modern dance can be so enjoyable to watch.

“Enflold,” by Gotheiner and danced by Rick Callender and Melissa Chisena, also utilized set pieces well. The colloquial number was performed on a bench and, considering the constraints of remaining largely stationary, the choreography was inventive and elaborate. Literal themes were taken a step further with “The System,” a work about relationships that was equally tumultuous and contemplative. Choreographers Sparling and Lilly have created a unique and balanced piece that explored abstract movement without losing the attention of the audience. Dancers Callender and Janet Philla exemplified this with vibrant personalities and committed character-work.

“Four Screaming Women,” the culmination of the first act, was less a dance piece than an item of social commentary. Callender, Philla, Taylor and Meredith Riley-Stewart stood onstage and performed a symphony of repetitive movements, each accompanied by a phrase like “That’s wrong, that’s right,” “Is that what you want?” or “Did you vote? Did you win?” The call-and-response construction was often humorous, always entertaining and stopped just short of being obnoxious. Comfort, the choreographer, constructed the piece extremely well with mixed meters and wisely chosen phrases that begged the question, “Do we really sound like that?”

Melissa Chisena, Janet Philla and Meredith Riley-Stewart in "No Fear of Flying"

The second act, a mini-concert in itself, was more sympathetic to jazz than to modern but was tonally similarly to the first. Mark Dendy’s “No Fear of Flying,” performed by Chisena, Philla and Riley-Stewart, was a montage of strong female characterizations underscored by thought-provoking themes and a playful mood. A flight-attendent-style briefing for the audience, complete with blue-suited dancers with plastic smiles, was a high point of the piece and could have been a number in itself.

“At First Sight,” by Louis Kavouras, was fun and frolicsome and dancers Rachael Hayner and Alex Lum exploited this to the utmost. The two characters met, fell in love and enjoyed a fleeting few minutes of dewey-eyed romance before Hayner, quirky and exuding effortlessness, pilfered Lum’s backpack and traipsed away. Lum was adorable in his crestfallenness, completing the piece perfectly.

“The V Files Medley” by Vikki Baltimore-Dale and “Prelude, Fugue, Postlude” by Dolly Kelepecz were the two most traditional pieces and added a note of solidity to the show. Baltimore-Dale did well by her dancers with edgy undulations and featured solos, although unison choreography could have been stronger. Amanda Bakalas, Anna Fazio, Jesus Nanci, Lum and Hayner each approached the choreography differently and this, accompanied by Baltimore-Dale’s signature Afro vibe, made the number dynamic and exciting.

Rachael Hayner, Alex Lum and Jesus Nanci in "Prelude, Fugue, Postlude"

Kelepecz’s piece began with nontraditional lifts and choreography that was clean, straightforward and well-paired with the music. A fission-fusion method of staging was engaging to follow and avoided the static “principal and corps de ballet” configuration. The five dancers from Baltimore-Dale’s piece performed Kelepecz’s as well — the red-blooded jazz made for an interesting undercurrent and Kelepecz used this energy artfully.

Margot Mink Colbert’s “Swan Homage” also sidestepped the standard ballet, although for entirely different reasons. Nanci, clad in austere blacks and whites, danced alongside a projected image of Anna Pavlova performing Michel Fokine’s choreography from the 20th century. The effect was pleasantly perplexing with a nod to the humorous and summed up the concert nicely:

Odd and enjoyable.

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