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"A Dance to Touch the Soul"

Rumford Falls Times
October 4th, 2007

by Barry Matulaitis

Photocredit: Gordon Chibroski

WEST BETHEL - Ballet is, by nature, a graceful and elegant form of art. When combined with mime and the sculptures of a talented artist, ballet takes on a whole new meaning. West Bethel sculptor and artist Dennis Dreher and Maine's prima ballerina, Karen Montanaro, have embarked on a solo dance piece where Montanaro dances with two of Dreher's stainless steel and glass sculptures. The end result, called "The Struggle to Be", is a performance so powerful that many in the audience are moved to tears.

"It is a developmental piece," said Dreher as the sun streamed through the windows of the Pennacook Art Center last week and reflected off of a weaved wire and marble sculpture that he has on display. "We're still working on it." The two met at a sculpture show at the Pennacook Art Gallery about two years ago.

Karen's husband, Tony Montanaro, was a world class mime innovator who developed a form of mime called physical acting, in which an actor can be any character they want. He founded a series of performing companies, including the Celebration Barn in South Paris, before his death in 2002. "I met Tony almost out of sheer luck in 1975," Dreher recalled. He applied at one of Montanaro's theater companies with his portfolio. Dreher impressed Montanaro enough that he was hired on at the Celebration Barn in South Paris. "Karen and I never really got to know each other until Tony passed away," Dreher continued. "She took a liking to my artwork."

Montanaro approached Dreher about doing a dance piece using some of his sculptures. Later, the two met in her studio. Dreher's wife Gemma, who teaches art at Meroby Elementary School, had pulled out some pieces and designed the set. "It was wild because after we set it up in Karen's studio, she told Karen to dance and 'see what you can do.'" After watching Karen perform with the art pieces, Gemma was suitably impressed and asked what direction the dance was going to proceed. It was then that the three realized how special and original the idea really was. With that realization, however, came a reminder of how much work had to be done to make the dance piece performance-ready. For over two years, Montanaro and Dreher have fine-tuned their work. "It's turned into a juggernaut," said Dreher. "Out of the blue in late April, we started getting bookings with no product. We never expected it (the bookings) to happen this quickly." He is continually awed by Montanaro and her talent in ballet. "She's amazingly coordinated. She can do stuff that no one else can do."

Two pieces of Dreher's work are incorporated into the dance. One of them is a stainless steel wire sculpture on a four-foot shaft that is "very gossamer and very complex as well," said Dreher. It represents the spirit, the "God planet" and spins in the wind. Another piece is a wire circle 16-20 inches in diameter with glass marbles in it that represents the earth. It is a model of a molecule called Bucky Ball, the hitherto unknown fourth state of carbon and a molecule of human life. Both pieces are brilliantly lit in the performance. "The whole theme of the piece, it's based on a Sufi tradition," Dreher explained. Sufi is a form of Islam and emphasizes looking at oneself through stripping away the layers that conceal the soul. It also makes a connection between the physical, emotional, and spiritual states. Montanaro portrays character traits, with male and female situations, in the dance. Dreher says he feels "a whole range of emotions while witnessing the performance. She portrays inner turmoil, someone who is dissatisfied with her life." "You're not interested in the audience intellectually. You want them to emotionally react." At some point through her discovery of the planets in the performance, Montanaro gets a revelation on how to center herself and does so through joyful dance.

She was scheduled to perform with Dreher's art last week in Portland, and two weeks ago opened the first staged production of the dance in Bangor. On Nov. 3, the biggest performance yet will take place at the Rhode Island School of Design. Dreher has provided stage direction and helpful advice to Montanaro throughout the process, and together with his wife, they have come up with an incredibly imaginative and unprecedented art form. The dance will be performed at showcases in addition to the aforementioned venues. "We're happy that we'll be performing at an incredible gathering," said D. Dreher of the showcases. "But there will be many booking agents there." He noted that such showcases provided an opportunity to book future shows through the agents that are present.

As a tribute to the power of their work, Montanaro was recently the recipient of the 2008 Individual Artist Fellowship Grant from the Maine Arts Commission (MAC), the most prestigious award the MAC gives an individual artist. According to MAC Assistant Director Donna McNeil, the panel of judges "was impressed with Karen's phenomenal technique and control, but most importantly, they recognized that Karen has infused her prodigious skill in both mime and dance into a new art form using the body as a descriptive tool - painterly, narrative, and lyrical."

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