Friday, September 19, 2014

"The Luminous Edge"

Pictured: Dudley Flores
Photo: RJ Muna
Garrett + Moulton Productions
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
September 18th, 2014

Retro is chic and classic. Contemporary is cool and edgy. Mix the two together, and the possibilities are endless. So what happens when retro meets contemporary in modern dance performance? The result is renewal. And that is what “The Luminous Edge” is all about.

Garrett + Moulton Productions’ newest full-length evening work, currently showing on the Yerba Buena main stage, demonstrates the value of pairing the past and present together onstage. Featuring live music directed by Jonathan Russell with special guest singer Karen Clark, this world premiere had forward thinking, innovative choreography (by co-Artistic Directors Janice Garrett and Charles Moulton) and a timeless narrative. But the structure of the work was the most compelling element. As they have done in a number of previous compositions, Garrett and Moulton opted for a combination cast: company dancers and a movement choir. The inclusion of the chorus is a bit of a retro choice in today’s performing arts landscape. But in “The Luminous Edge”, the connection between the featured dancers and the corps is anything but old-fashioned. And while there are definitely hierarchical issues at play, this particular form provided visual framing, narrative support and theatrical interactions that made “The Luminous Edge” a special combination of retro and contemporary.

The visual framing started in the opening moments of the dance. The lights went up to reveal the movement choir in two lines on either side of stage. While walking back and forth, the lines weaving, they created a corridor to ‘introduce’ the cast members. And in a beautiful cadence, they returned to these original positions at the end of “The Luminous Edge” to help the cast say farewell to each other and to the audience. Yet the ending was brilliantly deceptive – only four of the dancers retreated backward into the abyss, leaving one couple downstage center. Renewal was clearly still in process. The movement choir’s role was changeable and fluid throughout the piece – sometimes they were onstage, sometimes absent, sometimes together as a group, sometimes separated. During much of the choreographic action, they were in a moveable bleacher formation. Organized in three rows, these eighteen dedicated performers provided a physical score of (mostly unison) gestural phrases; movement and narrative context for the various solos, duets, and group sequences.

By interacting with the company dancers in a mutual conversation, the movement choir was equally involved in bringing the renewal narrative to life. In two separate instances, the cast stood in individual spotlights around the stage space. Each of the six company dancers was joined by three movement choir performers whose hands flowed, washed and waved over them. Here the chorus was helping them evolve from one state to another, almost like guardian angels. In another striking, yet contrasting, scene, the movement chorus was strewn about the stage in a chaotic frenzy catching dancers Tegan Schwab and Nol Simonse in a human tornado. Only once in the entire seventy-five minutes did the movement choir’s contribution not make sense - the vocalization sequence. Up until this point, the eighteen performers had been silent and so the decision to all of a sudden mix sound and gesture was curious. It seemed out of place and compromised their carefully cultivated movement power.

While the structure of the work was most intriguing, there were also a number choreographic and performative highlights that deserve special mention. Carolina Czechowska’s early solo (accompanied by the movement choir) was something else. Renewal is a constant process, of both big and small movements; simultaneously quiet and loud. Czechowska’s variation spoke to that complexity – blending the subtle presentation of a single arm and the strength of demi-pointe balances with the vast luxury of attitude turns and arabesque extensions. In addition, the pairing of Schwab and Simonse was incomparable. Anytime they were onstage, especially when they were dancing together, the emotive breadth, personal rapport and technical acumen left you wanting more. Lastly, Garrett and Moulton injected a number of highly energetic full cast choreographic scenes throughout “The Luminous Edge”. This bit of whimsy and spirit was a welcome addition to the lengthy work, which did tend towards similar material and single-level dynamics.      


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Mary Armentrout Dance Theater

“fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”
Z Space, San Francisco
September 13th, 2014

Post-modern choreography has always sought to take risks, avoid stagnation and challenge the status quo. Fifty years post-Judson, twenty-first century post-modern choreographers still continue this forward propulsion, seeking new understandings of dance, choreography and theatricality. But they are going about it in a different way, and they are onto something big. Many of post-modernism’s primary tenets remain – egalitarianism, non-conformity and blurring the lines between life and art – but there is a renewed sense of direction. Conventional dance performance models can work within this ethos. Attention to content and meaning does not take away from the attention to form and structure. Story is valid and good. This isn’t a new stylistic hybrid; it is not post-modernism-lite. This is post-modern dance for the twenty-first century.

“fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”, Mary Armentrout Dance Theater’s newest performance installation, is a great example of twenty-first century post-modernism. Through video, text phrases, dance, props and scenework, Armentrout has crafted a piece that is avant-garde, thinks outside the box, and blurs the space between life and art while still being relatable. And the narrative is perhaps the work’s most important feature. “fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together” is about love and relationships, about their permanence and transience, and the search for understanding in the context of that partnership.

Keeping to true fantasia form, Armentrout opted for a unique structural format – a prologue followed by four chapters. The prologue unfolded in Z Space’s lobby while the crowd milled about prior to the performance. Cozy arrangements of couches, tables, and chairs were scattered around the large industrial space (an interesting juxtaposition of elements in itself), and the audience was invited to experience the videos at each of the stations. Non-conformity was the post-modern element at play seeing as how the audience had to make the choice to opt in and participate. We were not being guided around, nor was the video loud enough to take focus. It was genius – right from the beginning, the audience was an active participant, making the decision to engage (or not) in the work.

Then we moved into the theater for the four main chapters of the performance, starting with ‘in the still of the night’, a duet for Armentrout and Rogelio Lopez. Visually, this pas de deux was about as vulnerable as you could get – both dancers weren’t wearing anything. The choreography was completely real, filled with tender, affectionate movements. From the very subtle when their heads rested against each other to the more complicated acrobatic balances, the dance was all about genuineness and authenticity. And the physical vocabulary was compelling in its structural integrity and for its narrative implications – form and content were never at odds; instead, they were simpatico.

Repetition, movement and character dimensions were all highlighted in the second section of “fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”, ‘love is like a string’. Both in person and on video, multiple performers appeared representing different personality traits of the two main characters, while Armentrout explored, through text and movement, what it means ‘to know’ in a relationship. Next up was episode three, ‘talking heads’, where the mundane and the bizarre collided in a deliciously creative (and revealing) fashion. Armentrout and Lopez played out a typical everyday conversation between two partners – how was your day, what are we going to have for dinner, etc. But instead of speaking to each other, they spoke into individual video cameras; their faces simultaneously projected onto chairs, hanging high above the stage. Here was a profound comment on the fluidity of attention and how detachment can easily become part of the picture even when two people are physically in the same place.

In ‘darkness monologue’, the final movement of Armentrout’s “fantasia upon the moment when the woman invisible to herself and the man who isn’t sure whether he wants to exist yet or not decide to go in on an apartment together”, the audience was asked to move onto the main stage space. Pillows and chairs were provided and we were instructed to get comfortable and listen to an auditory meditation while the room went dark. Egalitarianism reigned supreme in this section as the viewer once again took on a participatory role. Yes, we were listening to Armentrout’s voice relaying her own personal journey. Yet, being physically present in and on the stage space had a very dramatic effect. Each individual was transported into the center of the performance experiment and invited to experience the words on their own terms – maybe they remained an observer; maybe they related to the story. It was a powerful, egalitarian and authentic cadence to this twenty-first century post-modern fantasia.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

"The Lost Boys"

“The Lost Boys”
choreography by Kevin Williamson
CounterPULSE, San Francisco
August 21st, 2014

Multi-discipline performance; dance theater; new/mixed media. Chances are if you are headed to a modern dance concert in 2014, it is actually one of these genres that you will be seeing. Choreography and movement mixed with sculpture, costuming, visual art, sound and/or videography has certainly permeated today’s dance field.

Some of these interdisciplinary attempts fare better than others. Too often, the connection between additional performance elements and the dance is at best, tenuous. The stage gets peppered with extra ‘stuff’ that is not relevant, relative nor resonant. And in most cases, these extras actually distract from otherwise sound choreography. But even though multi-genre dance clearly hasn’t won me over yet, even I can admit that when done well, the results can be extraordinary. And quite often, what separates a ‘successful’ interdisciplinary dance work from the rest of the pack is that the choreography and the movement retain top billing, while the other entities play an integral, albeit supporting, role.  

Kevin Williamson’s “The Lost Boys” is an example of how mixed-disciplined work can go very, very right. Currently at CounterPULSE in San Francisco’s Mission District for a two-performance run (with the final show this evening), “The Lost Boys” is an evening-length mens quartet combining dance with vocalization, props, text and lighting. “The Lost Boys” tackles a very specific narrative – the 1980s AIDS crisis and how it affected those who grew up during that tumultuous period. A complex, layered theme, such as this, actually lends itself well to a multi-genre performance style. The choreography and movement were the primary mode of communication, speaking to the high level, deeper narratives: the search for love and companionship, the experience of being in community yet still feeling alone, the attempt to traverse a personal journey amidst outside forces. The ‘other’ theatrical entities assisted the dance by providing framing and context, most important, placing the action into Williamson’s chosen historical era.

Harsh, stark fluorescent lights signaled the beginning of the work as the four men took the stage. Once in place, they began a lengthy arm movement phrase - expansive yet controlled motions in very tight proximity. Their physical juxtaposition implied intimacy, but the four never actually touched. Here was a community that was close, yet still maintained purposeful distance from each other. And this space between ‘the real’ and ‘the veneer’ would come back again and again, but in creative new ways.

Early on, the musical influences set the stage with some well-chosen selections from mid- to late-1980s. Williamson opted to combine recordings with live singing/speaking of the lyrics. Though there was snippets of eighties choreography present in the dance itself, it was really these song selections (in each form) that made the time period clear.

In the middle of “The Lost Boys”, the cast embarked on the main modern dance sequence. From Williamson’s choreographic construction to the performance of the elements to the narrative undertone, it was flawless. This portion was all about strength – strength of composition, strength of technical ability, strength of character. Club dance mixed with classic grand pliés in first position; Capoeira influences fed into re-imagined renversés; and full split jetés walked alongside pedestrian tasks.

Photo: Taso Papadakis
Throughout the piece, a spitting motif recurred, and it wasn’t pantomimed - the dancers actually spit at and on each other. At first, the spitting was a little shocking and frankly, pretty gross. But because Williamson utilized the dance theater tool of repetition, after a while you were anesthetized to it. Getting used to seeing the spitting on stage also allowed the narrative to emerge. The spitting was violent, powerful and desperate, and above all, very personal. It encapsulated real levels of fear and frustration that had nowhere else to go. Text-work also revealed this internal/external struggle. A trio repeated the sentence “you’re fine” over and over. What started as internal reassuring quickly morphed to external objectification. Repeated sauté jumps in parallel passé also spoke to the difference between reality and pretense. The cast jumped high in the air with pasted on smiles that instantly dissipated once they landed. And in a surprise move, Williamson closed the fifty-minute work with an incredibly tender duet. “The Lost Boys” came full circle with this final statement of vulnerability, care and attention after much conflict, strife and discomfort.