Performing Arts

The Classical Beat: Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company presents unique and challenging love stories

The Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company will perform “Sha Tah Tee,” choreographed by the troupe’s late co-founder, Leni Wylliams, at its spring program, “Affairs of the Heart,” on May 22 and May 23.
The Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company will perform “Sha Tah Tee,” choreographed by the troupe’s late co-founder, Leni Wylliams, at its spring program, “Affairs of the Heart,” on May 22 and May 23. Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company

Love, from the undying devotion of Giselle to the star-crossed passion of Romeo and Juliet, is a theme that has always run through classical ballet.

But modern dance has a reputation for keeping a cooler head, favoring abstraction over obsession.

The Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company is out to prove that 21st century dance can plumb the mystery of love as well as any 19th century ballet when it presents “Affairs of the Heart” Friday and Saturday at White Recital Hall.

“Affairs of the Heart” features six ballets by contemporary choreographers that Mary Pat Henry, artistic director of Wylliams/Henry, says will explore the themes of “love, desire, seduction, betrayal and heartache.”

On the program are two company premieres: “Heart Thieves” by Robert Moses and Henry’s own “Love Hurt,” which is also a world premiere.

This will be the first time the company has performed “Heart Thieves” on one of its own programs, but Wylliams/Henry actually performed the work for the first time last September at the Carlsen Center. Moses, a choreographer based in San Francisco, created it for New Dance Partners, a collaboration between the Carlsen Center and local dance companies.

“It’s very, very complicated choreography for the dancers and a very different way of moving,” Henry said. “There are so many layers to the choreography. The dancers had to learn 60 gestures to depict couples coming and going, coming together and separating.”

Henry, who co-founded the Wylliams/Henry company with the late Leni Wylliams in 1991, tries to include a Wylliams work on all of her programs, not just to pay tribute but because of the high quality of his choreography. On “Affairs of the Heart,” the company will perform Wylliams’ “Sha Tah Tee.”

“‘Sha Tah Tee’ is one of the hallmarks of the company,” Henry said. “There are driving, Middle Eastern rhythms, and it’s very sensual, with undulating movements and explosive energy. The dancers are all over the stage. From the minute it starts, you’re taken on a fast ride. There are lots of duets, and you can feel the attraction and tension between the men and women all the way through. Leni had such a beautiful body of work that I try to put him on any time I can.”

Henry is contributing two works of her own, “Obsession” and Love Hurt.” “Obsession” is inspired by the poetry of Sylvia Plath and, as its title implies, explores the obsessive side of love. “Love Hurt” is a tribute to Percy Sledge, the smooth R&B singer who knew a thing or two about love.

“It’s the lighter piece on the program,” Henry said. “I thought if any artist captured what you felt when you were in love, from the best of times to the worst of times, it was Percy Sledge. One of the songs I use is ‘When a Man Loves a Woman.’ His voice, his sentiments, his music touched generations.”

DeeAnna Hiett, a former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York and a teacher at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, is contributing a work called “Three Play Four Play.” Henry describes it as “a love triangle about a man who is torn between two women.”

“It’s very driving, very physical,” Henry said. “There’s great tension between the trio, and ultimately the man has to choose one of the women. DeeAnna’s choreography really pushes the limits of the dancers. It has the physicality you associate with Ailey. Her work also connects to the emotions and relationships and the things that people go through in life, which reminds me of Martha Graham.”

“Affairs of the Heart” will conclude with what Henry calls “the steamiest piece on the program,” Gary Abbott’s “Desire.” Abbott, an assistant professor at the UMKC Conservatory and co-artistic director of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in Chicago, creates choreography Henry describes as “physical and flowing.”

“‘Desire’ is set in a village where there’s a matchmaker and young couples who come and go together. It’s very seductive. The matchmaker sets up all these relationships. She kind of manipulates the community. The title totally tells you everything. It’s all about desire … and it’s very sexy.”

7:30 p.m. Friday, May 22, and Saturday, May 23. White Recital Hall, 4949 Cherry St. $18-$24. 816-235-6222 or

Te Deum Antiqua; V Cantores

Some of the greatest choral treasures come from the Spanish Renaissance, yet this music is not often performed in concert.

Te Deum Antiqua will offer the rare opportunity to explore this repertoire Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. From the intricate compositions of Francisco de Penalosa to the chant-based masses of Cristobal de Morales to the mystical polyphony of Tomas Luis de Victoria, the program will give a nice overview of this rarely heard music.

7 p.m. Sunday. St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 11 E. 40th St. $15. Free for students with ID.

Patrick Neas is program director for To reach him, send email to