When former Dance Alloy artistic director Mark Taylor suggested to a group of talented dancers who had auditioned for his company but were not hired that they form their own collective, a seed was planted. A decade later, Laboratory Company Dance has grown into one of Pittsburgh's most innovative dance companies. As LABCO enters its 10th season, artistic director Gwen Hunter Ritchie sees the fruit of the company's efforts as ripe -- reflecting maturity and vision, a solid aesthetic and an established following.
Ripe is the title of LABCO's anniversary season-opener, Dec. 1 and 2 at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. To reflect where the company is artistically, Ritchie has programmed two new works and a recent favorite.
For her new work "The Woman's Dance," New York choreographer Sarah Skaggs developed a movement style reminiscent of postmodern dance works of the 1970s.
"I would say it is the most literal piece I have ever done," says Skaggs, speaking via telephone from Durham, N.C. "People will get it right away."
The 12-minute piece in two sections, for four women, employs an intricate series of arm gestures, from praying and saluting to cheering and "voguing." Set to music by composer Philip Glass, and New York DJ Steven Harvey's message-driven remix of Patti Smith's music and field recordings of Pentecostal churchwomen speaking in tongues, the work's mood moves from sassy to serious. Says Skaggs, "It is looking at the movement from all angles, giving it rhythm, and seeing what it tells us."
Meanwhile, Ritchie's latest choreographic work, "Soul Carrier," was inspired by complications from the birth of her first child, Vaughn, and the death of her mother-in-law. The 30-minute piece for eight dancers revolves around the cycle of life and the universal feelings of separation associated with birth and death. The multimedia work layers dance, filmed images of nature and the body by Chatham College associate professor Prajna Paramita Parasher, and text written and spoken by LABCO's dancers derived from their personal experiences with birth and death.
The dancers must sometimes deliver the text while miming falling asleep or shaking violently. To help them, Ritchie -- whose resume includes a stint as a Dance Alloy company member -- enlisted acting coach and former Alloy colleague Andre Koslowski. Several of the dancers will also show off their singing skills in the work, crooning a dark-natured Spanish nursery rhyme.
Ritchie, who has taught at Chatham herself, cultivates that connection for other collaborators. Set designer Susana Amundarain explores the idea of the body as a vessel, with her abstracted set design of two sails suspended over the stage and manipulated by the dancers. And composer Efrain Amaya provides a dense and largely dissonant original score for the work, to be performed live by a pair of cellists.
"The movement overall is a departure from the full-bodied movement I usually incorporate in my choreography," says Ritchie. For "Soul Carrier," Ritchie says she used more subtle movement, some of it derived from a sonogram of her son in the womb.
A reprise of New York choreographer Donna Uchizono's frenetic "Steel-Eyed Susans," which LABCO premiered last season, concludes what should be a ripe late-autumn harvest for LABCO and its audience.
LABCO presents Ripe 8 p.m. Fri., Dec. 1, and 8 p.m. Sat., Dec. 2. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $15 ($13 students/seniors). 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org