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Dames in Power

When it comes to the dance arts, Denver has its share of high-caliber entertainment, from the formal charms of the Colorado Ballet to the modern dance leanings of the Cleo Parker Robinson School. But for Katrina Lairsmith, a former Parker Robinson student, there's a gap in the local dance culture--maybe...
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When it comes to the dance arts, Denver has its share of high-caliber entertainment, from the formal charms of the Colorado Ballet to the modern dance leanings of the Cleo Parker Robinson School. But for Katrina Lairsmith, a former Parker Robinson student, there's a gap in the local dance culture--maybe even a need for a kick in the collective tutu.

That's why Lairsmith formed the Damsels. Set to make their area debut this Friday and Saturday, this collaborative of twenty-something women is hardly a group in need of rescuing. On the contrary, the Damsels are aggressive movers and shakers.

"We're women, we're strong, and we're not afraid to say what we want to say in our shows and do what we want to do," Lairsmith says of her seemingly bad-ass bunch. "And we're not going to be intimidated by anybody's opinion of us. We're gonna dance about what we want to dance about."

In a very physical sense, Lairsmith notes, the Damsels also stand apart from their peers. "I didn't want to have a company where women come and see this perfect, beautiful body," she divulges, "because I don't think they'd appreciate it, and I don't think it's realistic. I wanted all sorts of women, as different as they can get. We do look different, and that's important."

Lairsmith is no newcomer to winning over mainstreamish crowds. After doing time as a teen with the Parker Robinson company, she went on to serve a three-year stint with the Denver Nuggets Dance Team. Along the way, she has taught contemporary dance in a number of local schools, and she spent the last two years hoofing it in Los Angeles. Her stay there had a big impact on the direction of her current project, which proffers a brand of aggressive dance that Lairsmith says is gaining favor in many major American cities. She returned to Denver last year, and with the help of Nicole Harshbarger, the current director of the Nuggets dance squad, she launched the Damsels.

On an artistic level, Harshbarger says, "there's no connection between the Nuggets and what we do in the Damsels. The Nuggets are more of a crowd-pleasing thing. With the Damsels, it's much deeper. There's an issue behind every dance, and it's more athletic and technical. But we throw in an extra twist to make it more entertaining."

"We're not a commercial company," Lairsmith says with regard to her NBA connections. "We're just as well-trained as anyone, and we'll be taken just as seriously as anybody else. It's just that we're doing something totally different than what's here. We're a jazz company, but we're ballet-based, doing contemporary dance."

In Life, Love, and the Blues, the Damsels' upcoming program, Lairsmith and her associates throw themselves at a broad range of topics stretching from love and sexuality to rape and capital punishment. "We cover a lot of different issues that women deal with in their lives," Lairsmith says, "and some of the issues we cover are a little bit controversial. They're topics that people don't want to deal with when they're watching a show. But these are things women deal with, and we think we have to cover them.

"I don't want to be just another dance company," she adds. "All of my choreography has a bit of controversy to it, and I prefer that and I like that. I would rather have people love or hate the show rather than leave and feel indifferent. It gets people's attention and gets them thinking. And we all take part in the choreography--it's not just my vision."

The Damsels get their points across to a soundtrack of current music, most of it by female artists such as Tori Amos and Melissa Etheridge, as well as edgier acts like Ani DiFranco and Portishead. Some anthems are introduced with Damsel-penned prose as well, so the audiences aren't left wondering what the women on stage are commenting on.

"We're making it very clear what we're dancing about," she notes. "I think that the general audience needs a little more help in understanding what dance is all about. If they can relate to it and understand it, they'll appreciate it. Whereas if it's a little too extreme, they're not so sure about it. I mean, I'm a dancer, and I've been to a lot of shows where I wasn't sure what the message was. Well, when they see us, they'll get it."

And the Damsels are hoping a broader audience might enjoy a little sass with its aesthetic pleasures. "Eventually we want to be known--known across the country," she admits. "So to do that, we have to touch the entire public. That's our deal, which is why we're making it easy for everybody to understand what's going on. But it's also very, very artsy."

How will D-town crowds react to the Damsels' in-your-face brand of aerobic artistry? "I think they'll love it," Lairsmith says. "Denver's not that small of a town anymore, and there's a huge community here that supports the arts. And, yeah, they go see The Nutcracker and they go see blah, blah, blah, but it's time they go see something else, something they haven't seen before. And they're going to be shocked at the talent level we have. And a group of women doing this--I don't think it's something they would ever expect. We're taking chances, but they're going to love it."

--Marty Jones

Life, Love and the Blues, 7:30 p.m. November 6 and 7, Denver Civic Theater, 721 Santa Fe Drive, $10-$12, 303-595-3800.

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