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MADCO season opener will be diverse, demanding

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 29, 2010 - Modern American Dance Company, better known as MADCO, celebrates its 34th season on Friday, Oct. 1, with a variety of dances ranging from classical modern to contemporary.

The concert opens with Michael Uthoff's "Bach Cantata #10," an abstract, spiritual piece for nine dancers. "The cantata is deeply religious, in terms of both music and text," said Uthoff, executive director of Dance St. Louis and former artistic director of the Hartford Ballet. "The dancers offer an interpretation of the music's sacred articulations. Stylistically, I see this dance as a kind of hybrid: It's balletic in a sense, but with a modern texture. There are no point shoes, yet the piece evokes a light, airy feeling free from angst."

MADCO, co-founded in 1976 by Alcine Wiltz and Ross Winter, is best known for its athleticism, technical prowess and versatility. It is the only modern repertory company in St. Louis, and one of the oldest in the country. Daily company class is based largely on the movement principles of Erick Hawkins, an American modern dancer whose technique emphasizes the importance of strength and vitality in combination with fluidity and effortlessness.

The company's mission has remained the same over the past three and half decades: to create innovative and stimulating performances while providing talented dancers the opportunity to work and live in the Midwest. MADCO employs 10 dancers and two full-time rehearsal directors. In contrast to dance pick-up companies - groups that hire and pay dancers per individual performance - MADCO offers its dancers the stability of an annual season contract and salary. Auditions are held annually.

Overcoming Tragedy

Long-time company member Stacy West was appointed artistic director in 1994, at a time when many doubted that the company would survive. Wiltz had left several years previously when she accepted a position as director of dance at the University of Maryland. Winter, who was company director at the time, was killed suddenly in a car accident.

"Winter was my teacher and mentor, and it was a very challenging time, both personally and for the company," West said. "Both the board and funders were questioning whether the company would make it."

Once the initial shock passed, however, West, who also has a business background, restructured the company and made it viable for the future. She hired nationally acclaimed guest choreographers and worked to attract the best dancers from throughout the United States.

MADCO's stability and national prestige have increased over the past three years, ever since it has taken on the role of Dance Company in Residence at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, on the campus of University of Missouri St. Louis.

"Our dancers rehearse, take daily company class and perform at the Touhill," West said, "and UMSL dance students also benefit greatly from the collaboration. They participate in company class and perform in works choreographed by MADCO dancers." The company also offers an internship program, in which students devote eight hours a week to rehearsals and training in arts administration.

New and Returning Dances

For the season opener, associate artistic director Todd Weeks returns the humorous dance "Seven Secrets" to the stage. Performed by an all-female cast of nine dancers, the piece was inspired by "The Seven Secrets of Body Language," an audio book that Weeks came across while surfing the internet.

"The book is basically a primer on how to succeed in business and life," the choreographer said. "It offers us all kinds of advice, like, for example, how to give a business associate an alpha handshake. Parts of the book are hilarious and I thought the subject would work well for a dance."

"Seven Secrets" is performed to a soundtrack created by Weeks, which includes recorded snippets from the book and instrumental rhythms created on a computer.

Weeks, who is trained as a classical ballet dancer, is also premiering "Commino verso la pace (Journey to Peace)," a balletic work that explores the relationship between the human soul and its physical form. Featuring five duos, the dance examines human attempts to reunite a wounded soul with its body. The duets are set to a sound recording of a composition by Zoe Keating, a San Francisco-based composer and cellist who straddles the boundaries between classical and electronic music.

MADCO's Jennifer Reilly will premier "Black Hole," a piece that investigates the phenomenon of human horror, both supernatural and earthly, through frenetic and edgy movements, strobe lighting effects, and the eeriesoundscore from the "Blair Witch Project."

"Two Becomes One," a new work by MADCO's Lindsay Hawkins, features two duets about the failure of a relationship and the human desire to move beyond it. The duets are performed to the music of Philip Glass and Mika.

"Untied," a fast-paced, percussive dance by Cecil Slaughter, closes the evening. Performed for St. Louis' Spring to Dance festival last May, the work is, according to Slaughter, "an abstract, yet emotional piece that opens with a calm adagio, but ultimately ends in a driving, percussive frenzy."

Sydney Norton is a dance and visual arts writer.

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