The show began strikingly as Pittsburgh-based Gia T. Cacalano took over the theater’s big, open lobby with her solo work “Still Life 2013.” With its athletic yet introspective movement language and dreamy, electronic soundtrack, it was an emotionally wrenching piece capped by a bold use of the space — Cacalano exiting the lobby through the front door and finishing the work on the Penn Avenue sidewalk.
With an excerpt from her “Dancing Solo,” Shana Simmons found a musical novelty: According to the festival program, composer Libby Larsen wrote this 1994 work “to interpret through a clarinetist what a dancer does on stage,” but it’s never actually been performed with a dancer. As clarinetist Amanda Morrison played, Simmons offered her witty, light-hearted interpretation incorporating parodic burlesque elements (complete with costume change).
The most theatrically daring work on the program was surely Samantha Speis’ “The Way It Was and Now.” It began as a mesmerizing solo dance — a grounded and direct piece perhaps recalling work by Urban Bush Women, with whom New York-based Speis dances. Then it stopped cold, and Speis spent at least 10 minutes donning perhaps 15 layers of secondhand clothing until she was a shapeless mass who shambled importuningly off the stage and into the audience. The self-negation was hard to watch, and that was the point: Speis writes that the work is about “her epxerience as a black woman grappling with internatlized racial oppression.”
The evening’s most technically complex work — and perhaps the most fun to watch — was Mana Kawamura’s “cloud.” To a soundtrack consisting partly of animal sounds, New York-based Kawamura and Mei Yamanaka performed an intricate duet that incorporated movements like frog hops and birdish dips.
The program ended with State College-based choreographer André Koslowski’s “Wiegenlied.” The work — which wrapped its dance in absurdist theater — took place on a stage centering on a rubbish heap and spiked with a few dead trees. Koslowski, artistic director of Pennsylvania Dance Theatre, took one role, mostly in drag, alongside. Jennifer Keller and Tina Konrath. There were a couple nice solos and a few moments of effective humor, and the music (from India and the Middle East, sounded like) was interesting. But if you’re doing a deadpan-humor-in-a-wasteland scenario, it’s hard to avoid the shadow of Waiting for Godot, and Wiegenlied (“lullaby”) mostly came off as labored.