Sunday, February 14, 2016

Scratch Dance

Scratch Dance
Pictured: Maya Haines and Emmeline Gonzales-Beban
Photo: Harper Addison, courtesy of Scratch Dance
Of Stills and Lifes
The Flight Deck, Oakland
Feb 13th, 2016

Scratch Dance’s inaugural home season, their new premiere work conceived by Artistic Director Erica Pinigis, Of Stills and Lifes, and my first visit to The Flight Deck performance space in Oakland. Saturday night was definitely an evening of firsts.

Of Stills and Lifes struck on two fronts. It was intriguing to witness the result of such a distinct compositional structure and choreographic course. As Pinigis’ program notes explained, “each new duet was created from the same base phrases and generative prompts, then the dancers created telephone game interpretations of the previous duet.” While we didn’t see that game unfold in real time on the stage, the process Scratch Dance had employed was readily apparent - each sequence was very much informed by the others. Also, it was fascinating to consider whether there were real time implications at play. Was there any ‘in the moment’ decision-making happening? If so, how different was each individual performance? Scratch Dance is off to a promising start with this smart and engaging conceptual experiment in form and content.

As the house lights went down, six dancers entered the black box space and separated into pairs to share different but concurrent pas de deuxs. From there, the action oscillated back and forth between brief unison segments and the core of the work, the collection of duets. The flow in and out of these formations was both secure and confident and the duets themselves varied on several levels. Pairings shifted throughout and the choreography ranged from minimalist pedestrianism to contact improv-styled lifts to intricate modern technique. While each pas de deux was unique, postures, poses and steps did recur, revealing the piece’s construction. And in a nice contrast to the earlier duet material, a commanding and powerful solo closed the first act, full of large circular motions, spirals and early modern dance-inspired postures.

Of Stills and Lifes was separated into two halves by a short intermission during which the set was slightly re-ordered. This broke the work’s overall flow and seemed kind of unnecessary. Having said that, choreographically and performance-wise, the second part of the dance was very strong. The opening movement phrase was captivating – a solo of graceful port de bras met robust front attitudes and deep pliĆ©s in second position. Four additional cast members joined in this meditative circuit, bringing their own interpretation and individualism to the table. It was a beautiful statement of quiet fortitude and calm elegance. A sense of searching and outward focus also pervaded and again, motifs from the opening duets provided cohesiveness and throughlines. With its hip circles, skips, directional shifts and parallel pas de chats, the line dance scene near the end had a delightful folkloric feel to it. And Of Stills and Lifes closed with a unison sequence full of motion, excitement and joy. The entire ensemble was all in, committed and present in every second of the dance, but the technical clarity and communication of the choreography was uneven at times.

Of Stills and Lifes had a number of additional theatrical elements to it – a visual artist working downstage right, a clothesline from which the dancers dropped hanging wooden pegs, buckets of sand, a wooden teeter-totter set piece and a game of shuffle puck. While all were visually interesting and the cast interacted with many of these components, it was difficult to understand their function in the work and they actually pulled focus away from the dance. There was just too much going on at the same time in a small space. Perhaps these collaborative elements were speaking to a larger narrative (whether linear or deconstructed) but if so, the connective fibers were a little unclear. 

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