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The press release for this weekend’s performance describes her alternately as “Washington’s dance diva” and “the iconoclast of Washington dance,” but I like to think of Maida Withers as DC’s grand dame of dance. No matter how one feels about Withers—and just about everyone in the city familiar with dance knows her and has an opinion—it’s almost impossible not to respect her. The 74-year old director of Maida Withers Dance Construction Company and professor of dance at George Washington has worked steadily throughout a 47-year career, never hesitating to try new approaches and take risks. And that includes an open embrace of technology and other emerging concepts that could put someone half her age to shame.
Withers’ current show at Dance Place, which is something of a career celebration (a video in the lobby plays snippets from some of her pieces throughout the years), serves as a great example of her style. The first half is a piece called “Fare Well – The End of the World as We Know it OR Dancing Your Way to Paradise,” which consists of Withers alone onstage, dueting with a videographer and an electronic musician, both of whom are improvising. In the dark theater, it’s nothing but Withers (in a white dress slit up to the waist) and two glowing computer screens.
She’s been working on the piece for the past two yeas, and it incorporates video footage and movement phrases she created during various residencies and international projects—in Kenya, Russia, and the Arctic. That’s another one of Withers’ signature elements: collaboration across borders.
The second half, “Naked Truth,” is totally different: the piece features three strong dancers, and rather than aiming to make a statement, it’s simply a demonstration of beautiful movement. It’s still another of Withers’ strengths: strong, challenging choreography with composition that weaves dancers in and out of various groupings. Dancers Tzveta Kassabova, Giselle Ruzany, and Anthony Gongora have very different styles, but each is a talented dancer and the piece is a joy to watch.
After Saturday night’s show, Withers presided onstage to answer questions and then, grandly and graciously, greeted audience members exiting the theater in what amounted to a receiving line. The theater had been filled with friends and fans and just about everyone took the chance to tell Withers how much they appreciated her and her work.