Nov. 11 2009 12:00 AM

Happendance brings in new steps with dance series


Ayako Kato rotates only her hands, and then she clenches only her fingertips. Her body, face and core are posed, balanced, and completely still. She settles to the floor, clasping at it with her hands. Her face is sunken with the melancholy song that accompanies her routine. Her eyes don’t look at the audience or blankly stare at the concrete wall at the back of the room. She is looking for something.

Suddenly, she springs from the floor with the staccato caprice of the music and leaps into the air, her arms palpitating in front of her, beckoning the crowd of 40 seated in front of her inside Happendance’s Okemos studio to join in her emotion. Her expression brightens, as she circles closer and closer to the audience, stomping out the rhythm with her feet.

A native of Japan and founder of Chicago’s Epiphany Dance Project, Kato specializes in an experimental form of dance heavily influenced by improvisation. On Friday, she performed as part of the new First Friday performance series hosted by Happendance.

The small community of modern dancers has been watching each other’s routines for years without regular opportunities to see outside performers. "We kind of feel like we are in danger at Happendance at becoming really mediocre with the lack of stimulation," said Missy Bischoff Lilje, Happandance’s artistic director.

As a solution, Lilje founded First Fridays, a monthly performance series, showcasing new routines by local dancers, as well as visiting dancers from larger dance centers across the country, such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. The idea is to rattle students’ and observers’ preconceptions of dance. "I think one of the challenges that has emerged over the last three decades with modern dance is that it has become kind of an exclusive club," Lilje said. "We want to change that."

Visiting dancers are generally friends of Happendance instructors. Audience members are Happendance students, family and friends who come to experience more than the everyday homework, MTV and playgrounds.

For the dancers, it’s an opportunity to get feedback from an audience, as they present fresh routines.

Kato, 41, danced for 51 straight minutes at last Friday’s concert.

“It’s a challenge for a choreographer or a dancer to dance to music that everybody knowßßs,” said Kato while introducing her dance to J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”

Her movements spoke otherwise. The energy and fervor behind each jolt or hanging curve of her arms, each kick or pat of a toe exemplified a sense of duality.

“I am hoping to hold human beings as a part of nature, and human beings in the society,” she explained. “The interesting thing is that when you are listening to ‘Goldberg Variations,’ you experience whole different kinds of emotions and also texture and scenery, and this is why I love Bach, because when you listen to Bach with any scenery, landscape, or happening, the music gets into the core of your being. You feel what it is; it’s beyond words.”