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Monica Hogan Danceworks delivers excellence, unique creative flair

Written by: Ashley Suta

Photos by: Cody J. Jacques

Atlanta proudly welcomes back Georgia-native and seasoned choreographer Monica Hogan Thysell. After nearly a decade of working and creating in New York City, Thysell has returned home and is eager to share her artistic vision with new audiences.

Resilient Paradise, originally staged in 2019, made its striking Atlanta debut Oct. 8-9 in Resilient Paradise and Other Works at Emory University’s Performing Arts Studio. This performance, Monica Hogan Danceworks’ first evening-length show since establishing a permanent residency here in 2021, marks the exciting new beginning of her Atlanta company.

Act I opened with bend to break, a work which premiered in the March 2022 Dance Canvas Performance Series. The piece centered around reflection and the nature of duality. The choreography explored the concept of choices through the articulation of contending forces – fall/suspend, linger/let go, etc. – and made nice use of various circular motifs that hinted at the cyclic nature of the process.

Towards the end, you can feel a growing defiance within the group of five dancers. It’s as if whatever broke them no longer has power over them and has lost its heaviness. The arc in this piece is one of strength and elasticity. My appreciation for this work grew even more so the second time seeing it.

After the rain was an ethereally feminine trio performed by Aryanna Allen, Megan Long, and Justine Wasilewski. The dancers shone in a soft color palette of purple and pinks – a darker purple spaghetti-strap leotard on the top paired with a long, billowing mauve-colored skirt. The dancers glided through the movement as if through water. The three each brought one of their wrists to their foreheads several times, arm curved regally like a poised swan neck. The work felt peaceful and soothing and like a refuge from a storm.

Originally set in 2017, Reckoning was one of the darker works on the bill. Classy with a hint of casualness, this little black dress trio by Ellen Brown, Emily Hogan, and Louisa Pancoast felt intimate and conversational. Ella Fitzgerald’s swanky “Oh! Oh! What Do You Know About Love” drifted smoothly throughout the arts studio.

The work took a more vengeful, aggressive tone as the music shifted into “La Poule” by Hauschka. The stage lights dropped to nothing more than some shadowy low sidelight. They formed a circular clan centerstage bonded by what felt like shared trauma. The dancers placed their hands roughly to the top of their own foreheads, forcing their necks into two sharp rotations, hair flying wildly. The neck rolls were brought to a halt with a sharp downward jolt of the head and neck, again initiated from the heated forehead grip. A lightning-quick battement or kick upwards with one leg rooting them to the floor broke them free from their trance.

Audrey Crabtree and Ellie Peterson danced a whimsical re-staging of the company’s 2016 piece Morrow. This work, perfectly poised in the middle of Act I, was lighthearted, youthful, and such a pure expression of joy. The choreography felt like an artistic representation of sunlight and featured playful partner work and sharing of weight, reminiscent of two kids playing on the seesaw at a playground.

The dancers held each other’s gaze daringly throughout the work, as they bounced and zoomed around the stage, as if to say, “Watch this,” or “I bet you can’t do this!” The dancers lifted their eyes upward, only enjoying a break from each other’s steady gaze to enjoy a moment of basking in the sun, faces lifted upward with joy.

The brevity of brittle things, a new solo danced by New York company member Chisato Yanagisawa, was silky and delicate. Yanagisawa reached one arm in an arch overhead as if opening or turning the page of a highly fragile, larger-than-life, antiquated book. Her movements, abstract and soft, lingered in the air.

With intentionality and directness, she reached down to pick up something invisible yet miniscule and flimsy. Her fingers tugged delicately at the edges of her imaginary object, as she nonchalantly elevated it over her head. With arms crossed gingerly at her wrists, Yanagisawa released her precarious grip, dropping the figment of her imagination with purpose and a weary exhale. On cue, the stage went dark, engulfing Yanagisawa into sudden nothingness that felt like a very fitting and abrupt end to this particular work.

One of the most impressive aspects of Thysell’s choreography is how she is able to so seamlessly fuse her theater background with contemporary movement. The integration is not overdone or forced; her stylistic components all complement each other extremely well. Thysell’s work has a certain flair to it that I am excited to see her bring more of to Atlanta.

Livewire at the close of Act I was a shining example of this unique flair. It was fiercely athletic and casually fun at the same time. All ten bodies moved through the space in a borderline chaotic frenzy of balletic shapes, Fosse-esque jazz, and style that lived up to the title. It felt like a kaleidoscope of energy – not only due to the brightly colored shorts with which each dancer was costumed. It was a kaleidoscopic array of the beauty of human expression through dance – a full spectrum of creativity and impulse.

The piece, born in an electrified clump of chaos, ignited as all the dancers hunched down toward the floor with rounded spines began to shake their shoulders and arms with elasticity. As the work grew, it married the most breathtaking, balletic lines with more freeing, abstract movement in Thysell’s signature style.

It never became “too pretty” or too much like a ballet recital, which can happen when a choreographer tries to integrate established ballet vocabulary like that. There were flashing moments of beauty and familiarity, that rather than feeling like a choreographic cop-out, felt intriguing and innovative. The repeated use of a stirring motion – known in ballet as a rond de jambe en l’air – with one leg extended to 45 degrees off the floor while all the dancers stared blankly straight ahead brought an air of mystery to the work.

Resilient Paradise filled the remainder of the bill and was broken down into nine subsections. I enjoyed the complexity of this work and how each subsection felt like a building block on the one before it. Thysell created a really neat layering in her choreography that was well-crafted and fruitfully brought her concept to life.

This work explored the perseverance of the human spirit and its ability to challenge melancholy in the darkest times of hardship. A mildly cliché concept that’s a tad overdone, especially over the last several years following the pandemic, this work was actually created in 2019 prior to the uptick of popularity with this concept. The work, anything but cliché, shimmered with a refreshingly innovative execution of this idea that left me wanting more.

Not long into the work, Allen, Long, and Peterson piled in a condensed heap, stacked like collapsed dominos. One dancer laid face-up, and the other two peered down over her from the opposite direction. This compelling snapshot was later revisited in a standing version as well. All three dancers looked downward with shoulders hunched to the floor. Allen was sandwiched in the middle with the side of her face resting against Long’s upper back. Peterson climbed to the top, curving her body to the shape of the others, an arm wrapping around Allen and another reaching below toward Long.

Several sections into the work, Emily Hogan and Britanie Leland emerged from an upstage wing wearing the piece’s iconic disco ball helmets. Their effect on the other dancers and aura emanated that of a hero on a rescue mission. One-by-one and then as a team for the last dancer, the two half-guided, half-carried their companions into the large house-like structure built of thin black poles. The dancers laid limply inside, as if in a slumber, while Hogan and Leland performed a quirky and jazzy duet. The structure stood as a symbol of refuge and healing, as the group of other dancers slowly but surely recharged within its hollow walls.

The most captivating scene of this piece, and arguably the show as a whole, took place as the dancers rose one-by-one and were each given a single lightbulb suspended by a long, thin cable. They began walking one after another, almost zombie-like at first, with expressionless faces lapping the stage in indirect curving patterns. Each dancer’s lightbulb hung to the side at arm’s length while they paced, almost like it was a pet dog on a leash.

The repetition of the walking broke into an exploration of the light’s potential. The section that ensued was hypnotic and magical. The dancers walked in a mini circle, each around themselves. They stepped precariously as if over a tripwire even though their light bulbs were up high circling past their right shoulders and ears. The group leaned back delicately with the lightbulbs rotating around their heads. Solos broke out, as each dancer interpreted the different qualities, textures, and opportunities presented by the light.

The groundwork that Thysell has already laid for her new Atlanta company is impressive, especially considering the relatively short amount of time since she relocated back to the city. Monica Hogan Danceworks has a bright future ahead of it and an incredibly talented core group of local dancers. I look forward to witnessing the growth in this promising, new company that is fueled with intentionality, fresh perspective, and Hogan’s invaluable experience.

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