Plano — Outside of boxing the term heavyweight refers to a person of great influence or importance. Watching 8&1 Dance Company receive a standing ovation after the presentation of the company’s full-length dance dramaExchange Street Saturday evening at the Courtyard Theatre in Plano, it’s safe to say that 8&1’s Artistic Director Jill S. Rucci has earned her title of a dance heavyweight in Dallas. Drawing inspiration from personal experiences, all Rucci’s work over the past five years has radiated an authenticity that appeals to audiences on a primitive level. Add in her vast knowledge of producing and directing and an eclectic group of dancers and artists well-versed in all forms of dance and performance art and you have the makings for a dance company unlike any other in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Staying true to form 8&1 Dance Company’s latest production, Exchange Street, was inspired by Rucci’s grandfather and pays homage to the sport of boxing in the 1960s. Written and choreographed by Rucci,Exchange Street follows boxer Barry “The Bull” Leonard (Khalid Beard) on his rise to the top as well as his struggles to find a balance between boxing and his home life with his girlfriend (Hannah Fozkos). Rucci’s genius music choices, which include James Brown, Dean Martin, Simon & Garfunkel, Kenny Rogers and Dorothy Moore, not only reflected the time period, but also contained lyrics that directly tied into the characters’ narratives. Rucci’s movement choices seamlessly blended popular social dances such as the mashed potato, shimmy and twist into the mainly jazz-driven choreography. Costume Designer Sherri Fozkos and hair and make-up’s Kendra Hibbs and Jessica Scharff completed the image with beehive hairdos, floral dresses, form-fitted capris, suspenders, bright scarves and newsboy caps.
Company members Lauren Daniels, Kendra Hibbs, McKenzie Rollinson, Shelby Stanley, Pat White and Tesla Wolfe opened the show with a vivacious Fosse-inspired jazz number to Louis Armstrong’s Cabaret. Dressed all in black with black fishnets and character shoes, the six performers executed Fosse’s signature hips swivels, shoulder isolations and wrist flicks with rigor and poise. Rucci layered these moves with subtle head tilts, stop and go action and explosive leaps which matched the varying rhythms of Armstrong’s trumpet playing. While the dance was exciting and inviting, there was another scene that would have packed a stronger punch as the show’s opener.
Sitting on a bench on a dimly lit stage, the audience was glued to The Bull (Beard) as he methodically taped up his hands and slid on his boxing gloves before standing up and shadowboxing. As the head trainer at Title Boxing Club in Uptown and a trained fighter, there was nothing artificial about the way Beard moved. Every little detail from the number of times he wrapped the tape around his wrists to the unconscious way he scratched his head and thumbed his nose came across natural and uncensored. Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” added complexity and intensity to the scene without detracting from the simplistic beauty of watching Beard navigate through his routine.
After his workout at the gym The Bull headed to a local bar where he would meet his soon-to-be girlfriend Fozkos. While they were getting to know each other, Rucci used this time to highlight the company’s proficiency in other dance styles outside of modern, including jazz, musical theater and swing dance. While not always together, the ladies showcased unwavering control and playful musicality in a sultry group number to “Man’s World” by James Brown. The whole cast let loose during Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got That Swing” with dancers Trent Hyman and Stanley stealing the show with a swing duet full of continuous twists, spins, lifts and flips garnering generous applause from the audience. As the night came to an end narrator Avery D. Wilson walked out to give us a status update on the couple and teased us with some foreshadowing on the second half. Wilson’s charming smile and suave aire immediately put the audience at ease while his silky, yet punctuated manner of speaking had us hanging on his every word.
The men dominated the second half, which also included the highly anticipated fight between The Bull and Terrell “Lights Out” Lopez (trained boxer Brian Lacy). Leading up to the fight The Bull struggled to find a balance between boxing and spending time with Fozkos, which the couple acted out to Kenny Rogers’ “Don’t Fall in Lovewith a Dreamer.” Fozkos vented her frustration with the situation by writing a letter as a recording of her voice transcribed it aloud. The letter writing then led her to perform a technically clean and passionate contemporary solo to Dorothy Moore’s “Misty Blue.” While slightly over conceptualized, the scene was still one of the most touching moments in the show. Before the fight dancers Ruben Benitez, Chad Geiger, Trent Hyman and Nick Leos let it rip with a series of barrel turns, leg jumps and traveling grapevines in what can only be called an exuberant display of stamina and swag.
Rucci did an admirable transforming the theater into a real life boxing match with the help of dim lighting, a pseudo boxing ring prop and boxing official Johnny Carrasco who played the role of referee. Beard and Lacy didn’t hold anything back in the ring. Like dance, the pair’s boxing moves had a pulse that changed tempo when the two moved toward and away from one another. There was also a graceful quality to the way their feet shifted back and forth. The two art forms finally came together when five of the dancers whose faces were obscured by white hoodies, started punching, ducking and drop and rolling to Gnarls Barkley’s aptly chosen song, Run. Perhaps this dance would have been taken to the next level if Beard and Lacy had joined in the mayhem instead of freezing when the dancers came out. Or if the fighters were boxing to music instead of in silence. But as it was, the audience ate it up, shouting out encouragements like “Let’s go Bull” and “Hit him with a left!”
Talk about a knockout.
This review was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.