Mann has promising first flight at the Knight

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While an hour-long dance with 11 scenes doesn’t qualify as epic, Justin Mann’s Breaking Silence at Knight Theater last week was certainly ambitious. Telling the story of a contemporary romance imperiled by temptation, fear of commitment, and peer pressure, Mann’s choreography convincingly fused elements of modern dance with the idioms of hip-hop and gymnastic floor work, often climaxing with the splashy ensemble tableaus we’ve all known so well ever since Michael Jackson and Thriller revolutionized MTV.

Such sustained vitality is not often seen from the renowned companies that perform at the American Dance Festival in Durham, Spoleto USA in Charleston, or here at the Knight, where we’ve already seen Parsons, Ailey, and our own NC Dance in the new venue’s inaugural year. Nor are we talking about mere pep when considering Mann and principal dancer Kelsey Orem, who starred as the lovers. Their artistry and fluid technique were echoed deep into the troupe, which I venture to say is largely comprised of students from Mann’s home studio, Fancy Feet Dance, over in Matthews. The stylishly distorted B&W photos in the program may have deceived me, but I’ll single out Aimee Otte, Chance Benson, Jarvis Garvin, and Ashley Rogers as consistent standouts among the 20 supporting players.

Too often, Mann straitjackets himself in his piece by confining himself in his musical choices, indulging in too much repetition, and short-circuiting his dramatic narrative. All three of his first scenes have beds in them, resourceful from a budgetary standpoint but hardly the best way to give a story vigorous forward thrust. Mann would be better off if he approached his task by giving his protagonists names, interests, and specific quirks of character. Similarly, it would help if the guys Mann hangs with and Orem’s lady friends had some individuality and impact on the story. When we reached the climactic “Betraying the Trust” segment, Mann had taken a suggestively white article of clothing from Orem, but it was difficult to discern the nature or gravity of his betrayal.

As good as the raucous ensembles were for “The Streets” and “Club Juice,” I wouldn’t have minded if Breaking Silence had embraced quietude and silence a little more, particularly when the spotlight narrowed to the lovers. We didn’t need Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff necessarily, but a few more sensuous slow-moving moments might have assured us that there was fire and heat between the lovers that matched their energy.

Very likely, the power and excellence of the final scenes of Breaking Silence may have interfered with Mann’s realizing that he needed to fortify his earlier scenario. We circled back in the denouement to the opening “Dream” scene, echoing what we had witnessed in a predictable déjà vu, but then Mann in his new dream veered horrifically from worship to desperate, despairing bondage. It was an encouraging affirmation that Mann is capable of generating stirring drama after all – and perhaps a foretaste of what we’ll see from the dancer/choreographer if he’s emboldened to pursue that direction more intently.

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