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Stepping up Tonight begins an impressive stretch of various options filling up the WNY dance card -- from local upstarts to national powerhouses

For fans of classical and modern dance, clicking through the online entertainment listings for a glimpse of their chosen art form can often seem like an exercise in futility.

Among the ballroom and bellydancing lessons and line dancing nights at country bars, opportunities to see professional and touring dance companies in the 716 are few and far between compared with their thriving counterparts in art, music and theater.

But over the next four weeks -- for some serendipitous reason -- dance organizations both international and local have conspired to push Buffalo's plucky but undersung dance scene into the spotlight. A healthy collection of performances from dedicated local troupes, touring companies and even a pair of preprofessional groups will provide ample opportunity for dance fans and newbies alike to get a taste of Buffalo's growing scene.

That's due, in no small part, to the efforts of the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts, which has been a strong advocate for both local and touring dance companies for more than a decade.

And from the sounds of it, even as the economy continues its downward spiral, the locally based segments of the local dance community are working to create buzz for Western New York as a dance destination. Both LehrerDance and Configuration Dance, two national touring companies that have put down roots in Buffalo in the past five years, will organize a dance festival slated to take place at the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on Aug. 1. And LehrerDance, only a year and a half old, will launch a new collaboration with Artpark starting July 10.

"I think it is getting stronger," Joe Cipolla, artistic director of Configuration Dance, said of the local dance culture. "We are inspiring each other to bring the standard of what we're doing up higher. I think that's always a good thing."

But long before July and August roll around, there's plenty to see. Check out a few of the options:

>LehrerDance

7:30 tonight

Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 1285 Elmwood Ave.

www.lehrerdance.org

After forming in June 2007, the Buffalo-based LehrerDance has quickly made a name for itself on the national dance scene. One of its dancers, Marideth Wanat, was named one of the 25 dancers to watch in the United States in the January issue of Dance magazine. The company is headed by Jon Lehrer, a former UB student who worked as associate director at Giordano Jazz Dance in Chicago for 10 years before starting the new venture. In its performance tonight at the Albright-Knox, LehrerDance will present four tried and true pieces from its repertoire before heading off on a two-week tour of Virginia.

"I've combined modern dance and jazz dance and really tried to bring the best parts of them together, so you have the excitement and energy of jazz dance with the artistry and fluidity of modern dance," Lehrer said. The troupe only performs Lehrer's work, which lends it a distinctive style and sets it apart from most repertory dance companies who incorporate work from several choreographers, he said.

Lehrer is also working with Cipolla of Configuration Dance (which performs May 2 and 3 at the UB Center for the Arts) on the August festival, which he said he hopes plants the seed to turn Buffalo into a destination for the nation's top dancing talent.

"We tour a lot," Lehrer said, "and our favorite thing is that people always say, 'You're from Buffalo?' We're carrying a flag. It's great."

>Momix

8 p.m. March 18

University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, Amherst

645-2787 or www.ubcfa.org

Moses Pendleton describes himself as solar-powered.

And fortunately the sun was shining on the longtime choreographer's rural Connecticut estate when we caught up with him to talk about Momix, the 30-year-old troupe of "dance-illusionists" he founded and which comes to the UB Center for the Arts on March 18. Pendleton, who also co-founded the well-regarded dance company Pilobolous (which dropped by the Center for the Arts in November), described Momix as a sort of hybrid of dance, athletics and theater that's deeply inspired by dreams.

"It's almost a kind of surreal visual theater," Pendleton said. "We use props -- pieces of kinetic sculpture, a pair of skis, simple things -- and do imaginative things with it. It's kind of an entertainment, and it has a poetic impact as well. It uses the body in unique and imaginative ways through extending them through various props to create a new body of imagery." Or, in other words, Pendleton said, Momix is "highly trained, physical, beautiful bodies doing strange things."

In the surrealistic landscape of Momix, men and women become rocks, geese, even abstract constructions such as moonlight and seemingly cellular forms.

The company, which tours around the world when it's not practicing in its studio-within-a-barn on Pendleton's sprawling estate, will present a "best of" program featuring pieces from its most popular shows.

Pendleton described one piece, called "The Gila Dance," from the Momix show "Opus Cactus": "It's really a giant rattlesnake Gila monster image that is made up of four men, flat on their stomachs, with their heads up each other's butts, creating a giant snake. You're thinking, 'Is this modern dance?' Well, it has movement and it's physical, but really, if it's working, you're not seeing a dance or a dancer or a collection of dancers. You're seeing a giant rattlesnake."

>Urban Bush Women

8 p.m. March 20

University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, Amherst

645-2787, www.ubcfa.org or www.urbanbushwomen.org

At the intersection of dance and community activism sits Urban Bush Women, a Brooklyn-based dance company that will come to UB for a weeklong residency than culminates with a public performance on March 20 at the Center for the Arts.

The group, according to its performance program, "seeks to bring the untold and undertold histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance." Its dancing explores issues of femininity, the African Dispora and all manner of political and social issues.

During the residency, the group will work with UB dance students as well as high school students at the Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, Amherst Senior High School and others.

>Greater Buffalo Youth Ballet

7:30 p.m. March 27

University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, Amherst

645-2787, www.ubcfa.org or www.gbyballet.org
The GBYB, which got started in 1997 as a preprofessional ballet featuring students from dance studios around Western New York, may not have all the honed skills of Momix or LehrerDance. But what it lacks in experience it makes up for in numbers. The company, which often performs with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, will present a production of the light-hearted ballet "Coppelia" at the UB Center for the Arts.

"This ballet is so much fun," said Greater Buffalo Youth Ballet founder Elizabeth DiStasio-Waddell, who also teaches dance at UB and runs Buffalo's Royal Academy of Ballet.

The ballet equivalent of a romantic comedy, the much-performed piece tells the story of a man who falls in love with a life-like doll -- think "Lars and the Real Girl" set in 19th century France. Swanhilda, his practical joker of a fiancee, eventually convinces the entire town that the doll is real and all manner of merrymaking and confusion ensues.

DiStasio-Waddell will bring in two dancers from the Pennsylvania Ballet, Max Baud and Barrette Vance, to dance alongside the students and teach them a thing or two about the art of ballet.

"We're shaping the future by educating these students and keeping culture and dance alive," DiStasio-Waddell said.

>Lockport City Ballet

March 13 to 15

University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, Amherst

645-2787, www.ubcfa.org or www.lockportcityballet.com

Another company comprised primarily of students, the Lockport City Ballet will mount the ballet version of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," famously choreographed by George Balanchine in 1962. And with a cast of 45, it's sure to be an engrossing spectacle.

This narrated version of the ballet, set to music by Felix Mendelssohn, dispenses with Balanchine and uses new choreography by Susannah Dwyer Gentes and Lockport City Ballet Artistic Director William Gentes.

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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