Company members depicting the chemical symbol for the plastic molecule using neon tape in "Plastic People of the Universe."

A dance company with a funny name came to UNLV on April 1 and 2 for a concert that was part neo-classical modern and part social commentary. Artichoke Dance Company, which is based out of New York, hit the stage of the studio theater clad in costumes adorned with those plastic six-pack holders that kill dolphins. “Plastic People of the Universe,” an artistic exploration of the properties and ramifications of plastic in our society, was no less surprising or enjoyable.

A short, cheeky film started the show with what would accompany the audience throughout the entire concert: a disconcerting mix of humor and apprehensive disillusionment. Intimidating facts about the breakdown and reuse of plastic would be presented to generate an ominous feeling, but then a cute turn-of-phrase or sly joke would break the gloom and doom. This accomplished precisely what so many organizations cannot: a consciousness of humanity’s impact that was tinged with purposeful optimism.

Artistic director Lynn Neuman’s “Plastic People of the Universe,” the concert’s namesake and the entire first act, was a tasteful venture into the experimental. Dancers George Hirsch, Malinda Crump, Aidan Feldman, Maxx Passion, Toby Billowitz and Neuman herself acted as competent guides, directing the audience with a wide vocabulary of movement. (Student dancers Hillary Gibson, Candi Hanson, Jesus Nanci and Ashley Wilkerson augmented the cast as well.) Classic modern concepts like weight-sharing and contact improvisation were morphed into contemporary cousins of what has been around since the 1980s, which created a relevance typically unheard of in this genre.

Technique was evident in many cases and the movement itself was at once accessible and alien, made even more so by the commitment of the dancers to the odd and unorthodox. At one point in the show, dancers traversed the stage and called out chemical compositions of the human body, down to amounts found at 0.175 percent. This sort of thing, on top of everything else, gave “Plastic People” weight and immediacy and engaged the audience in a concept that could have been overlooked or tuned out otherwise.

Toby Billowitz and Maxx Passion in "Commuter Connection"

For all the inauspicious insinuations presented in the first act, the second was a purely enjoyable study of characters and circumstances. “Commuter Connection: A Rush Hour Romance” featured dancers standing shoulder-to-shoulder, each reading a publication as if on a bus or subway. One commuter, portrayed by the eye-catching Passion, was a disorganized, frantic, cellphone-weilding mess that was as endearing to the audience as she was obnoxious to the other characters. Passion’s fearless acting was mirrored by Billowitz, who gracefully rendered an understated and kindly character. The piece was scored by well-selected Tchaikovsky tunes and added just the right hue of humor to the concert.

“Recession Dances, and so can you!” expanded the scope of Artichoke’s commentary and examined the effect that economic changes have on the arts. The suite of pieces featured dances popular in other recessions from the 20th century, such as the sugar push from the West Coast, the mambo, the tango and the lindy hop. Modern laced each of these, creating a cohesive experience without becoming monochromatic. Animated personalities from the dancers and incredible choreographic breadth from Neuman exemplified the versatility of this little company from the other, more distant coast.

Toby Billowitz, Lynn Neuman and George Hirsch do the lindy hop in "Recession Dances, and so can you!"

The concert, as well as the weekend of Artichoke’s Las Vegas tenure, was over too soon. It is rare to see such a relatable conglomeration of difficult realities and redeeming light-heartedness, but the company members and dancers from UNLV pulled this off seamlessly. And if an off-the-wall dance performance can’t make people think twice about buying bottled water, it is unlikely that anything else ever will.

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