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For the longest time, Buffalo's professional dance scene was a member of the friends and family program. Performances had the feel of high school football games. Cheering was so loud and proud -- and had no correlation with the onstage mediocrity -- that it could have originated only from the mouths of blood relatives or best chums.

Those not intimately acquainted with the dancers battened themselves down until a touring company came to town. The quality divide between local dance and the imported stuff kept growing wider.

But Pick of the Crop has changed that.

Its fall concert raises the bar to a new high. This rich program spills over with invigorating choreography done sweet justice by a strong company.

Refusing to buckle under to the city's historically low expectations for local dance, founder Elaine Gardner has patiently tended to her company's needs for 16 years, gradually nudging up its standards.

"Autumn Dances" is not a culmination of months of rehearsing, but of years of patient building.

Former Parsons Dance Company principal Gail Gilbert choreographed one work for the concert, the whimsical "Great Lakes Shores," and danced the solo to her 1996 "Oasis Bound."

Both bring new meaning to the word "props." Gilbert doesn't use them in ways you might expect. They're not lifeless agents. They flow and change shape. Dancers manipulate them but sometimes appear manipulated by them.

A meditation on metamorphosis, "Oasis Bound" has Gilbert shifting through various incarnations with the help of three props: a six-pronged metal object, a fabric covering and a stick. First the prongs and the fabric are attached to her back, giving her the appropriately restrained look of a Victorian woman wearing a bustle. Later, she moves the rakelike object behind her back, a proud peacock no longer stifled by her dress.

Gilbert's movements waft between the carefully contained and the free-flowing sensual. At the heart of the dance is a graceful resourcefulness where doing what you can with what you have is the ultimate liberator. As she dances, musicians Curt Steinzor and Kirk Brundage sit in a stage corner and play ethnic flutes, recorders and even the floor.

The lighthearted "Great Lakes Shore" successfully incorporates five children, four adults and a white sheet the width of a stage in a quirky tribute to imagination. In this, it is the children who are most impressive.

Normally, they serve as props, trotted out on stage for the cuteness factor.

Gilbert, thankfully, will have none of that. These kids are cute, mind you, but that's incidental. They're onstage both because they can dance and because they're germane to the piece. This choreographer's modus operandi is finding magical in the everyday, in much the same way a child sees a rocket ship in a refrigerator box.

Who better to express this than children?

"Autumn Dances" marks the first fall concert that Gardner is not dancing in. Though her on-stage presence is missed, her off-stage presence is felt. This is a polished, balanced program, one that shows that her energy has not been divided.

Gardner's "Cardinal in Snow" (1995) fuses Rainer Maria Rilke's evocative poetry -- read in German over Steinzor's moody score -- with an invisible oppressiveness that rains down on five dancers. As he looks up at it, Yoav Kaddar is crippled by this force. He falls into the fetal position, rolls backward and lands on his knees, only to be pushed down again by some unseeable hand. This is a long, brooding work. It requires as much technically as it does theatrically, and the dancers -- Kaddar, Jeff Curtis, Chalie Livingston and especially Leslie Smolen and Storme Sundberg -- imbue it with the requisite depth.

Gardner's premiere on the bill is "Diagonal Dip," a mellow romp set to a David Byrne composition. The dancers, in black and red shorts, shirts and sports bras, create a hypnotic effect by repeating patterns of movement and shifting them spatially. The flow of dancers on and off the stage lends a pleasant fluidity to the work.

"Autumn Dances"

Local contemporary dance company's fall concert.

Performance begins at 4 p.m. today in Flickinger Performing Arts Center on the Nichols School campus.

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