"Valence" is defined in chemistry as the relative power of an element to combine with other atoms; in psychological terms, it refers the intrinsic attractiveness represented by different emotions. Explore Theatre and Dance unites the two meanings in their semi-improvised contemporary dance show by allowing the audience – using a Velcro-covered board bearing the names of their dancers – to determine the cast and themes of certain segments.
It's a tribute to the troupe's contact-improv skills that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the improvised pieces from the rehearsed ones (especially since the audience selections aren't identified during the performance), though some of their attempts at extemporaneous weight sharing and lifts left me fearful for their safety. Between the improv elements are a number of choreographed solos, several of which are proceeded by voice-overs of the performers confessing their phobias and insecurities; depending on your temperament, you'll find these either illuminating or insufferably self-indulgent.
Standout members of the company include founder Christopher Gonzales La Corte and Keisha Tracey, who devised a devastating solo on "identity” during the preview performance. I love that Explore's ranks are refreshingly diverse, demonstrating that you don't need a conventional "dancer's body" to be a compelling mover.
The show's greatest strength and biggest failing is the dogged consistency of its downbeat tone. Almost every number is set to mournful string music and involves people attempting to connect with each other and inevitably failing, usually with painful consequences. Even the gesture motifs that are introduced in the stark slow-motion opener and continue through the coda are based on flinching and choking, bringing to mind domestic abuse. This theme gives the otherwise unconnected pieces an aesthetic unity, but eventually becomes emotionally exhausting. The show needs moments of lightness to relieve the oppressive angst; some smoother musical cuts would also aid the abrupt transitions.
Issues aside, if you appreciate dance improv there is some smart, passionate work on display in "Valence." I’d like to see what they could do if they picked their choreographic partnerships more consciously, instead of leaving their pairings to chance.
Explore Theatre and Dance
– Winter Park, FL
Length: 60 minutes
Rating: 13 and up