Thursday, January 21, 2016


Khala Brannigan
SAFEhouse Arts, San Francisco
January 20th, 2016
by Heather Desaulniers

One of the joys of a vibrant, ever-evolving dance community (like the one in the San Francisco/Bay Area) is the constant opportunity to see something new. That may be new premiere works, a new program, series or festival, new performances spaces or new choreographic voices. Wednesday night’s Resident Artist Workshop (RAW) at SAFEhouse Arts was an example of that last case. An evening of contemporary dance performance by a choreographer whose work was brand new to me; someone who has great ingenuity and promise in the areas of design, concept, composition and direction. In the years to come, Brannigan will definitely be a choreographic force to watch.

Brannigan’s Quintessence is a mixed discipline full-length convergence of film, poetry, photography, live music and of course movement and choreography, divided into two quartet suites. In each chapter, Brannigan offers a thoughtful treatment of the quartet structure, with a variety of groupings and formations (solos, duets, trios). And choreographically, she also brings a broad diversity to the table in vocabulary, intention and dynamics.

Pictured: Khala Brannigan
Photo: Peter Clark
Following a very cool and compelling prelude, Brannigan herself took the stage to begin part one of Quintessence. She cycled through a fluid and highly technical movement phrase while lit from the front in a ‘shin-buster’ style. This added a gorgeous effect as her silhouette simultaneously danced on the backdrop and the walls. Some lovely moments unfolded – a stunning penchée arabesque, lightning-fast corkscrew turns, molten level changes and eclectic shapes. From there, three more dancers joined the scene. A second solo re-introduced some of the first choreographic motifs, but with a different energy. Intense, yet internal at the same time. A trio spoke of quiet restraint, with careful and mature attention to every detail, like how the hand and fingers delicately wrapped around the head. Later, candles were injected into the scene and arranged as altars in front of the dancers; ritualistic and meditative. And Quintessence’s first part closed with a brief dance film (by Peter Clark).

In the darkness, a new quartet filled the space and a pounding tom drumbeat pulsed through the air, announcing the next half of Brannigan’s Quintessence. The breadth and diversity that Brannigan had established continued in this second choreographic statement – quirky physicality morphed into free-flowing turns and then to staccato extensions. But the biggest change in this part of the dance was the partnering. While there were a few brief partnering phrases in the first half, here partnering took on a much larger role. And it was varied partnering at that. Some tender and supported; some controlling and imposed. The final unison sequence saw a primal aggressiveness give way to empowerment as each dancer emerged from a circular formation to solo. 

Brannigan has assembled a phenomenal group of collaborators for Quintessence. The dancers were particularly impressive in their technique, presence and commitment. Though they did have a few challenges with the space itself. SAFEhouse is an amazing performance space, but it isn’t huge. And occasionally, navigating the space and maintaining spatial awareness with each other proved a little difficult.  

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