Darkness washed over the audience like a breathless wave as the house lights shot out and, like a new dawn, rose over the seven performers standing across the stage. As if propelled by a warm breeze, Kayla Farrish began the first movement of the night. Arms twisting and bending like reeds in a soft rain, the performers moved together in the dance with precise synchronicity. The opening movement of “Flight Distance 1” contained a simplicity, motion and choreography that felt as natural as rainfall, yet still something pulsed forth from the dancers that somehow forced us to feel.
That’s how the opening of the seventh season of Helen Simoneau Danse kicked off at the Hanesbrands Theatre on March 16 in downtown Winston-Salem. The critically acclaimed North Carolina-based dance company has built an international presence since its beginning, but this season has achieved something that pushes the idea of performance art a little further along.
Partway through the opening movement, the lonesome mood of the dance crescendoed to a peak; the performers stood huddled and tangled together, hurling one of the dancers around in a violent tussle. Bright white lights shone on the group, casting a monstrous pair of silhouettes on the theater wall behind them on either side. A chilling piano composition by Jerome Begin echoed from the speakers as they threw the dancer from side to side, back and forth, and gasps leaked from the audiences’ lips, tears spilling from widened eyes, whether intended or not, but it seemed it couldn’t be helped.
This was the magic of the concert. You could sit in silence and try to think of your own pretentious interpretations of these movements, of what it all meant, but this was a moment of pure artistic expression, one that thrust you into the artist’s hands.
March 16 also marked the premiere of “Object Loop,” a collaboration between Simoneau and Winston-Salem-based musician Jared Draughon, more commonly known as Must Be the Holy Ghost, and visual artist Evan Hawkins who performs with Draughon under the moniker Weapons of Mass Projection.
“Object Loop” was the third and final act of the night. And holding true to what inspired Simoneau’s first performance with Draughon at Phuzz Phest in 2016, this performance was a real collaboration — three artists working together to build the movement. Known for his melodic and layered looping of vocals and guitars, the one-person band has been performing with Hawkins for several years, now taking their live shows another leap forward.
The collaboration adds a moving and even haunting element to Simoneau’s repertoire. As Draughon stood at the back of the stage, painted in the kaleidoscope of liquid light projection by Hawkins, the dancers allowed the music to ebb through their bodies, augmenting the beauty of this blending of art forms coming together. And while there were still two nights of performance left, there was a feeling of power and beauty as eyes rested on the twisting and hypnotic images projected and bodies moving on stage, knowing that this dance will never be performed in the same way again.
This opening night performance also premiered the second movement, entitled “Décalage,” which spotlighted performers Burr Johnson and Catherine Kirk. Holding fast to the power of simple yet ingeniously choreographed form of Simoneau is acclaimed for, “Décalage” pulsed in an enigmatic build-up of the entire concert. The two dancers matched each other in perfection, starting the movement with a stark distance between them and slowly drawing closer together as the piece progressed. The dancers moved with a grace like sea oats just before a storm, beautifully and powerfully touching, drawing forth deep emotion from attendees.
Art is built on two things: honest execution of a vision, and technical mastery while showing grace under pressure. In this seventh season, Helen Simoneau and performers have perfected both of these, giving a deeply moving concert to be remembered long after leaving the theater.
The concert is a leap forward for Triad performance art, a reminder of how beautiful and necessary it is, and how truly rare.