Circle Modern Dance rarely needs publicity for its annual Modern Dance Primitive Light show. Most Decembers, they pack the Laurel Theater for the multiple evenings of Knoxville's most-anticipated modern-dance event, which is always very different from the year before, and always memorable.
But popularity's no reason to keep it a secret.
The show has evolved into a pocket mini-festival of diverse music and movement that some have claimed is literally unique on this planet. We can't attest to that claim, but in performers and performances per minute or per square foot, it's at least one of Knoxville's highest-intensity hours of the year.
The performances, held at the intimate 1890s church building in Fort Sanders, are hardly more than an hour in length. This year that hour involves 10 distinctly different dance and musical pieces involving 34 dancers, not counting off-stage choreographers and technical support, and four musicians—all in a venue that makes room for just 100 spectators at a time.
"You rarely get a chance to see an arts performance when the artists are literally a few feet away," says producer Maria McGuire, an accomplished dancer herself. "There's a beautiful synergy between the audience and the performers."
Comprising different combinations of dancers, different music, and different choreography, Modern Dance Primitive Light is known for original arrangements, innovative steps, and taking risks. Previous presentations have included fire eaters, jugglers, sculptors, and sometimes themes that have startled even Circle Modern's friends, who already know they go for the unpredictable.
Partly inspired by native Guatemalan dances, Primitive Light has become a Knoxville tradition, now in its 23rd year. It's something of a holiday tradition. "For some people, it's a way to celebrate the holidays that's kind of outside the holiday institutions," McGuire says. There are no Christmas carols. "There's something kind of sacred about it, because it's in an old church, but it's open to any kind of creed."
This year will present a collaboration between Circle's core dance troupe and the young troupe Go! Contemporary Dance Works. Jun Liu will present a work of traditional Chinese and modern-dance fusion. Guest artist Danah Bella, a professor of dance at Radford University in Virginia, has performed all over the world; her piece, "Poco a pop se anda lejos," is described as "somber, raw, and strangely alluring, drawing us in with its subtle textures and expressive athleticism."
Former member Angela Hill, back from a seven-year sojourn dancing in Sydney, Australia, will present a journey-inspired piece called "Overall Effect." Hill's return to Circle Modern is one big reason this year's different, says McGuire, who had to organize some of this year's show long distance; she was in Munich during early rehearsals. She's likely moving to Germany next year, and suspects this may be her last show with the troupe. She suggests the show marks a "pivotal point," showing what the future holds for Circle Modern.
The last several shows have been organized "democratically," McGuire says, but with the return of Hill, this one has more unifying direction, and a theme.
"In keeping with ‘primitive light,' we're looking at our connection to the oldest form of light, being stars," McGuire says.
A subtheme involving quilt-making connects to that theme. "We're looking at our unity, and our connection to each other."
On the other hand, musical director Nate Barrett says this year's Primitive Light is one of the most musically diverse shows in the event's history. The flexibly resourceful percussionist, who's lately best known as half of the daring synth-pop duo Hudson K, has performed in most of Primitive Light's shows, and he directed the last few. Barrett has played lots of different gigs, but he says this is unlike anything else in his experience.
"It's always been a diverse show," he says. "But this one's expanding on that. From piece to piece, it's a different experience, with strong technical pieces, and some heartfelt pieces." Some are pop-rock, some are jazzy, some are classical in origin. "It runs the gamut. It always does, but this is even more so."
Some have claimed that Primitive Light could be enjoyed purely as a musical concert. Barrett demurs, but says, "You are going to want to listen to the music and watch the dance at the same time—use two sides of your brain."
Modern Dance Primitive Light is notable for taking artists of all sorts out of their comfort zone, to see what they can do in a very different venue. This year, local singer/songwriter Greg Horne, a recording artist who's better known in downtown bars and on WDVX's Blue Plate Special than in the world of modern dance, will present an original piece, directed by Amanda Merriss. (Horne will also play piano and guitar in Barrett's band for the rest of the show.)
Barrett says audience responses are as diverse as the show itself. Everybody's awed by something in particular. "It's a fun game to ask what people like best. It's never what you think it is."