Thursday, September 30, 2010

Preview - Velocity DC Dance Festival

October 7-9, 2010
Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC

If you happen to be in the DC area next weekend (October 7th through 9th), go and see the VelocityDC Dance Festival. This event is a unique opportunity to celebrate DC's diverse dance community. It is a great introduction to the local dance scene and one of the few times in the year where different styles of dance share one stage. VelocityDC Dance Festival will make you a DC dance fan.

CityDance Ensemble, photo by Paul Gordon Emerson
With approximately a dozen participating dance companies, multiple genres are well-represented. My favorites in the modern dance category are CityDance Ensemble and Edgeworks Dance Theater. CityDance is a forward-thinking dance organization that takes artistic risks with contemporary pieces while still seeking to preserve historic modern dance works (through re-staging). Their offerings at VelocityDC Dance speak to this dual mission: the classic “Esplanade” by Paul Taylor and “+1/-1”, which I believe is Christopher K. Morgan's best work to date. Edgeworks Dance Theater also has a varied repertory though an underlying theme is present in all their choreography: the celebration of the masculine. A rarity in dance, Edgeworks is committed to discovering the male role through choreography, both from a content and a formal perspective. Washington, DC is home to two major ballet companies and both will be making an appearance at the festival: The Washington Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. The Washington Ballet had an amazing season last year with some powerhouse productions (specifically “Don Quixote”, “The Great Gatsby” and their Genius³ mixed repertory program). They are on a roll, and I predict that their performance of Trey McIntyre's “High Lonesome” will be a highlight of the VelocityDC festival. The Suzanne Farrell Ballet is another company committed to the preservation of dance (primarily those ballets choreographed by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins). An exciting addition to this year's program, they will perform a lesser-known 1975 Balanchine piece (“Tzigane”) that was originally choreographed on and danced by Farrell herself. Ethnic dance is also featured in the line-up with soloist Edwin Aparicio (who brought the house down last year) and Furia Flamenca. VelocityDC understands the importance of inclusion, and to that end, makes every attempt to have a broad and diverse festival, representing as many different dance genres as possible. 

My review of last year's Festival:

My review of last year's prelude performance:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bayanihan - The National Dance Company of the Philippines

Photo by CAMI
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, CA
September 24, 2010

The dancing body is a joyful image.  Yet surprisingly, joy is so often absent from the stage.  Instead, we see sanitized modern and ballet, where the personal dancer is hidden so that the role, concept or vision being danced can take focus.  This is not at all necessary to the cohesiveness of any piece, in fact, it's detrimental.  Allowing dancers to show more of their personality does not compromise who or what they are playing; it adds to it.  Real emotion is so much more compelling than artificial constructs.  Bayanihan, The National Dance Company of the Philippines knows this to be true.  Their Cal Performances presentation at Zellerbach Hall demonstrated that true human joy transforms dance.  Their elation in physicality and love of movement was palpable through every moment of the program. 

Such a rich diversity is present in the dances of the Philippines, reflecting the nation's long and varied cultural history.  Many of the dances were clearly inspired by Spanish Flamenco vocabulary, with elaborate costuming, dramatic footwork, castanet-style hand percussion and exquisite épaulement.  The port de bras was precise and exact in that unique Spanish arm position, lying halfway between bras bas and demi-second.  There was even a Celtic connection on the program.  As body percussion, stomping and sole slapping filled the stage, the men became one with Appalachian dancing (itself a composite of Irish, English, Scottish, African and Native American styles).  And, of course, there was Asian lineage in the movement as well.  In the mask and fan scene, all the choreography and staging played with the idea of the half circle, mirroring the fan's beautiful image with the dancer's bodies.     

There were two common denominators present in all the different types of dance: flat feet and steps in threes.  No matter the style or influence, all the company's choreography featured a flat footed approach, where the weight is placed on the whole foot, as opposed to being shifted to the ball of the foot.  The flatness of the feet gave them a deep, low center, which led to calmness, composure and groundedness at every speed as well as a sense of connection with the earth, with the movement and with each other.  In addition, the company employed several different variations on 'steps in three': balancés, pas de basques, pivot turns, triplets, step-ball-changes.  These 'steps in three' are indicative of change - change in space, change in direction, change of purpose - quite a meaningful comment to describe the story of a people.    

The National Dance Company of the Philippines was the embodiment of absolute joy.  It was as if their internal emotion could not be restrained; they had it to share it through movement and choreography.  The performance permitted us to see souls dancing in celebration.        

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"The Woman Invisible to Herself" - Mary Armentrout Dance Theater

Photo by Ian Winters
The Biscuit Factory - Oakland, CA
September 18, 2010

Mary Armentrout Dance Theater's "The Woman Invisible to Herself" is a must see for anyone who is intrigued by experimental postmodernism yet still longs for meaning and a story.  With this site-specific work, Armentrout shows that she is committed and pulled towards post-modern ideals yet still holds a strong desire to make dance that is about something.  The concept was a unique exploration of identity, in which assumptions were challenged, inconsistencies revealed and parameters re-defined.  And, what made the piece so clear and cohesive was the equal partnering of the narrative alongside three major tenets of postmodernism: non-conformity, egalitarianism and the blurring of the line between life and art.    

The multi-room dance introduced us to different aspects of Armentrout's being, including those portions that identify as Asian (which she is not) and as a gay man (which she is also not).  There were numerous examples of non-conformity, egalitarianism and the blurring of the line between life and art, though the following three moments of "The Woman Invisible to Herself" were particularly noteworthy.  First, in an attempt to breakdown pre-conceived notions - of what it means to be a performer, the role of the audience and the relationship between these two groups - conversing, connecting and communicating with the audience was encouraged.  Both Armentrout and Frances Rosario were clearly going off a script with their text, not improvising.  Though it really felt that they were talking to us during the performance, not at us.  Second, unusual performing spaces permeated this piece.  We saw dance outside between vans, on the roof, in a hallway, and my favorite, in a reflection.  As five of us crammed into a tiny viewing space, we watched the introduction of Armentrout's different personas in a broken mirror.  The five minute musing was, quite literally, a glimpse into the fragmented parts of her psyche.  Last, the movement choices were very relatable.  There was much formalized modern dance vocabulary, but it was combined with movements everyone knows and does: sitting, standing, walking and running.

Most post-modern choreographers would be satisfied with a piece that showcased 'the big three' (non-conformity, egalitarianism and the blurring of the line between life and art) but, not Armentrout and her dancers.  They worked diligently to inject the narrative of internal discovery into every segment of "The Woman Invisible to Herself" and it was this concept that transformed the post-modern vision into art.  The tension of identity was present in all of the vignettes, though the outdoor offerings specifically drove this message home.  Nol Simonse's solo was all about self-protection as he clung to the perimeter of the building; lying on the ground, hanging from the ledge, balancing on the stairs.  His side attitude fed into a high parallel super-passé that was enveloped by a deep upper body curve - a strong image of self-preservation.  Natalie Greene's frenetic variation illustrated how quickly and easily our purpose can be blindsided by our own thoughts.  Greene would start facing one direction and then her body would throw itself backwards or sideways in space, taking her away from her chosen trajectory.  On the roof, all the fragmented parts of the self came back together in a statement of support and acknowledgement.  Motifs from Simonse and Greene's dances returned, with everyone taking on the off balance attitudes (to the front, side and back) as well as the running forward and being thrown back in space.  We also witnessed a very intimate moment where the four dancers mirrored each other's choreography.  They may have appeared to be dancing in unison, though, a closer look revealed that we were watching a learning and internalization of each other's physical language.  The audience was privy to a very personal and vulnerable instant of discovery, exploration and the marriage of different states of being.          

My only wish for this work is that the second act be re-thought, edited and perhaps absorbed into the first half of the performance.  The roof scene was the final portion of Act I and its ending should have been the finale of the entire piece.  On a beautiful horizon,  four dancers swirled on distant rooftops amidst the city landscape and the sunset.  The information and movement in the second half was interesting, though maybe a bit of a let-down after that amazing final image we saw on the roof. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Singing Praises: Centennial Dances for The Women's Building

Flyaway Productions in association with The Women's Building
18th & Valencia, San Francisco, CA
September 10, 2010

photo by Austin Forbord
Dance performance is full of transformative elements.  A flowing, chiffon dress can turn a woman into a ghost; an inventive set can place the scene in a forest; an amazing talent can change steps into artistry; and a choreographic genius can bring music to life.  Costuming, set design, music, cast, vision - these are likely some of the first things that come to mind when pondering the factors that go into performance.  Still, other components are equally essential in production.  Site-specific dance reminds us that location also has the power and ability to influence and transform dance.  Flyaway Productions' new work, "Singing Praises: Centennial Dances for The Women's Building" is a tangible example of this deep relationship between a structure and choreography.  Artistic Director Jo Kreiter knows how to marry the narrative with aerial dance.  She has succeeded once again, with a piece that focuses attention on what a building is, what it means, what it has done and can do for a neighborhood.

"Singing Praises" most prominent theme was the pull between 'staying' and 'going' - such a perfect metaphor for The Women's Building.  This space has sought to be and still is a nurturing, welcoming and helpful environment for women and girls in the community, instilling determination, pride and self-worth.  Though, to truly make a difference, its mission could not and cannot be insular.  Strength and self-confidence need to be palpable both inside and outside the doors.  The result is an architectural statement of protection and enveloping, support and encouragement, fortification and investment.  Places like this have a story and it affects the choreography that happens on them and in them.  This dynamic site evolved this dance from movement into community history and participation.      

The dual message of embracing and releasing was beautifully translated into aerial performance by Kreiter and the company dancers.  In several segments of the piece, bent knees were followed by full extensions; an encircling then an uncovering.  Use of the fire escape ladders also indicated this dualism combining groundedness with an expedition to something new, somewhere new.  Here, we saw a repeated motif where one foot was planted to the building and the other extended in arabesque out and away.  In one of the many duets, one dancer was attached at the window frame close to the structure, while the other floated out free in space.  These two were performing the same steps, in unison, yet the choreography was being experienced in two different realities (in the Center and in the community).  Last, the circular patterns in "Singing Praises" spoke volumes: the spinning in attitude and the walking in circles (toward the building, then away) again highlighted the cyclical nature of this space in the lives of women.     

Kreiter's work also brings up the issues of fragility and precariousness.  "Singing Praises" took place right in the middle of the Mission District on 18th, and none of the streets had been sealed off to traffic.  Many of the motorists going by were completed distracted, focused on the dancing instead of on the road.  It made me feel anxious and ill at ease - fully expecting to hear the screech of brakes at any moment (thankfully, the night I was there was accident-free).  In addition to the traffic-issues, these nervous emotions were heightened because dancers were suspended from harnesses, flying through the air and balancing on the edge of the roof.  But, however uncomfortable, I think these sensations are necessary.  It's good to be reminded every once in a while that existence is tenuous.  It's a reality check, and for some (me included), increases our awareness to the gifts in life.