Review | Company celebrates its 25th year with two big performances

Leni Wylliams and Mary Pat Henry were Kansas City arts pioneers.

Long before the Crossroads Arts District or the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Wylliams and Henry saw Kansas City as the perfect home for their new dance company.

Founded in 1991, the Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company is going strong and is a vital part of our city’s arts scene.

The company will celebrate its 25th anniversary with two big concerts this year, one in the spring and one in the fall. The spring concert will take place June 3 and 4 at White Recital Hall.

“I’m looking back at what I consider the choreographic highlights that the company is known for, plus we’re introducing new works with new choreographers, some emerging, some established. … When I look back and realize it’s been 25 years, it’s quite astounding,” Henry said.

Henry, a South Carolina native, was working as a dancer in New York City when she and Wylliams, an Emmy Award-winning choreographer originally from Colorado, decided to join forces to create a company. They wanted it to be a repertory company that would present the range of American modern dance, from the neoclassical to the avant-garde.

“I had a whole list of over 20 choreographers I wanted to do, and two years ago I was able to check off the last name,” Henry said. “The only one who was never on the list, because we never dreamed that big, was Martha Graham. Well, we were finally able to do a Martha Graham work as well.”

Among indie dance troupes, Wylliams/Henry is an unqualified success story, but a tragedy struck early in its history that almost ended the company. In 1996, Wylliams, then 35, was murdered in his home in Kansas City. Henry, with amazing courage and fortitude, kept the company alive without her friend and partner.

“Those two years after he died were difficult,” Henry said. “But I just couldn’t let the company disappear. I said I would do a year, two years, and we’ll see where we go. But when you see the product on the stage, you realize it’s all worth it. Sometimes the business side of putting it on the stage can get overwhelming, but I’ve never felt like I’m just going to stop.”

Which is a good thing for dance lovers in Kansas City. For the past 25 years, the Wylliams/Henry company has presented some of the most interesting, engaging and provocative choreography of the contemporary dance world. For its anniversary performance, Henry has selected works that reflect those qualities.

“They are pieces that define the company and the artistic physicality of the company,” Henry said. “One of them is called ‘Church of Nations,’ by Kevin Iega Jeff. It’s been 10 years since we’ve done that one. Also, my ‘Esperando nin Silencio,’ which was inspired by the mothers in Argentina in the Plaza de Mayo, ‘waiting in silence’ and holding images of people who were disappearing.”

Henry notes that this is the 40th anniversary of the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo,” whose children disappeared during the Argentinian military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.

Also on the program is Wylliams’ “Sweet in the Morning,” a “hallmark of the company,” as Henry calls it. And there are four newer works: “Ensuing,” an example of neoclassicism by DeeAnna Hiett, the edgy “Twisted Metal,” which Gregory Dawson created for the company, Amber Perkins’ “Ritual,” which Henry describes as a “tour de force duet,” and “Between a Crease on an Elevated Plane,” by Kaylin Horgan.

Henry is committed to continuing to bring the best of contemporary dance to Kansas City in programs that are creative, exciting and engaging for audiences.

“I always try to be aware that you have to bring people to dance, and you can’t force dance on people,” Henry said. “You have to invite people to the stage.

“Sometimes dance speaks very quietly and sometimes it speaks very intensely and sometimes it’s just beautiful and lyric. That’s what Wylliams/Henry is. You let your spirit soar. You come out feeling refreshed and invigorated.”