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Kelley Donovan & Dancers perform in 'Gaining Ground,' which premiered this year at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center. (Photo by Randy Collura)
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Kelley Donovan presents new work at Dance Complex
By Theodore Bale/ Correspondent
Thursday, September 23, 2004

Most of Kelley Donovan's distinctive dances have unlikely origins. Her signature work, "No Such Thing as a True Story," began with a sound and text collage from composer Brian King as well as writings by the renowned Buddhist practitioner Pema Chödron. The inspiration for Donovan's newest piece came earlier this year, quite simply, while she was getting a massage.
     Donovan's massage therapist has a boyfriend who happens to have a friend in Austria named Monika Stadler, a composer and jazz harpist who is well known in Vienna. When Donovan heard Stadler's latest CD during her massage therapy session, she was "struck by its gentleness," as she put it, and decided it would be the perfect point of departure for a new ensemble work for her all-female dance company. The result is "Small Shifts," Donovan's latest effort and also the title of her upcoming concert Oct. 1-2 at the Dance Complex in Central Square.
     Since her company first performed in 1997, the concepts of transformation and impermanence have become major themes in Donovan's innovative choreography. Her solo "Changing Skin" uses the imagery of a snake as a metaphor for internal change. Many of her ensemble pieces focus also on physical and emotional conversion, and she says that her newest work is about "the small subtle changes that are constantly taking place in our lives every day."
     Meaning, however, is rarely literal in her dances. Of "Small Shifts," she says that "patterns evolve into duets as dancers lead, then follow; touch, then quickly part, their rapid movements melding into intricate phrases to evoke forgiveness, letting go, circularity, unwrapping the self, approaching, retreating, gradually progressing through the space."
     Donovan says that all of her ensemble work is made in a collaborative spirit with the performers, and that her company creates "contemporary dance which highlights muscular effort, suggesting images of relationships among women, physical and emotional." And when she's starting out working on a new piece, she always begins the first rehearsal with a similar process.
     "I give the dancers two things," said Donovan. "I give them a series of movement images, such as traveling side-to-side, changing levels and other things that will give some structure to create movement. Then I give them lots of other images, such as reaching behind one's self, that sort of thing. I give them these kind of cryptic tasks, along with some emotional imagery to address the specific movement structures. Then I see what they come up with, and the results are always interesting."
     For example, Donovan asked dancer Melissa Caddle to "be under the gaze of others, aware of their eyes," and to "be ambivalent about being seen." She asked her also to create movement "emanating from the core, coming in and out of a vulnerable state." The sequence was so satisfying that it became a lengthy solo within the finished version of "Small Shifts." Caddle is also the featured performed in another premiere on the program, "Awake," set to a score by Somei Satoh.
     Donovan says that she's trying to get away from the standard ballet vocabulary, as well as what she calls "the standard modern dance look." She might take several weeks with her dancers to develop a particular phrase, adding sharp accents or changing the overall shape of the phrase. Sometimes, she will take parts of two very different phrases and merge them to get an entirely different look. Ultimately, she strives for a style where "everything is connected and coming from the same material."
     "What's wonderful about this particular group is that they are so fast," said Donovan. "They can process material so quickly that I can go through 10 ideas in every rehearsal and throw seven of them away. Sometimes you work for a half-hour just to see what something looks like, and you run out of time and use stuff that you wouldn't have used if you'd had more options. So I really feel like we are keeping the best of our material."
     After seven years cultivating her company and building repertory, she laughs and admits that she has no idea where she's headed.
     "There's no manual for what your choreographic career entails," said Donovan. "It's not like going to medical school, and then doing your residency, and then doing other things. As a choreographer, you don't really know what the next step is," she added, laughing.
     And the effect her work has on her own psyche continues long after it's performed. "I'm still determining the meaning of a work when it's being presented, and even months later," said Donovan. "In this piece, there is the theme of shifting, spatially, which is very literal. I'm not sure if it comes across on an emotional level. It seems more abstract, but I've been staring at it for three months now, so it's hard to tell. Maybe, it's more vulnerable than the other pieces we're doing right now," she speculated. "There are so many shifts right now in my own life, that I felt the title was appropriate."
      Tickets to "Small Shifts" are $12/$15 and can be reserved by calling 781-321-6188. For more information about the program, visit http://web.mit.edu/kdonovan/www/.

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