Monday, June 12, 2017

ChoreoFest 2017

Yerba Buena Gardens Festival
ChoreoFest 2017
Yerba Buena, San Francisco
June 10th, 2017

Many dancemakers take advantage of the summer months to take their work al fresca, offering site-specific performances in alternative, natural settings or on outdoor stages. This is also true in the Bay Area, though outside performances, even summer ones, can be a bit risky in San Francisco – warmer weather and a cooperative climate are never a guarantee, to be sure. That being said, sometimes the stars align and this past weekend at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival was one of those moments. Gorgeous weather, outstanding choreography, and uplifting dancing was on the menu at ChoreoFest 2017, a three-day performing arts event held in and around Yerba Buena, expertly curated by Ryan T. Smith and Wendy Rein, co-Artistic Directors of RAWdance. I was fortunate to catch the middle offering on Saturday afternoon, featuring three premiere works and one encore from 2016.

Allegra Bautista in RAWdance's Requiem
Photo Hillary Goidell
Opening the program in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum was RAWdance’s haunting, stunning Requiem, choreographed by Rein, Smith and Katerina Wong. Costumed in navy and wearing black sheer blindfolds, a trio cycled through a slow, meticulous, meditative phrase, with their backs to the audience. A range of small and large movements unfolded - from a single palm rising to the sky to developpés in parallel second to huge grand rond de jambes ending in arabesque. This first statement morphed into a larger ensemble as dancer after dancer walked with purpose and strength into the scene; an openness and calmness surging in every step, almost with a Tai chi like sensibility. Both vulnerability and a deliberate spirit sang through the space as solar plexuses ascended upward. And countertechnique lifts and balances added loft, breath and a community spirit to the work.

While introspectiveness abounded during Requiem, a somber note was also very present, especially as the dancers peered out through the sheer black masks. And the movement contained moments of fracture. Long extensions of the leg would suddenly break at the knee or at the hip and poses would purposefully collapse. But quickly these instances of fracture would morph into something different and choreographically transcend into the expanse. Because I arrived right as the performance was starting, I didn’t read the program notes until after. Only then did I learn that this striking work was titled Requiem, and it was a remembrance for the forty-nine souls violently taken a year ago at Pulse in Orlando. A response, a tribute and also an example of the inherent healing power within dance – if you have a chance to see this work, take it.

The crowd made its way across the street and settled just outside the Yerba Buena Forum space for dawsondancesf’s hold fast to dreams, a new trio from Gregory Dawson. Danced by Erik Debono, Frankie Lee Peterson III and Jacob Williams, the piece started with the three leaning against a sculpture. A series of percussive hand gestures and arm sequences brought the trio away from and back to their starting position, after which they slowly walked down the length of the building until reaching a corner boundary. Some of the first movements recurred in this new place, but this time, growing and developing. Debono, Peterson and Williams hugged the structure, making different points of contact with the driving choreographic phrase material, some partnering, some unison, cluster shapes and even parkour-like leaps. And as the pas de trois continued, a physical essay on perspective and assumptions arose. What happens when a wall becomes the floor? What movement is possible when we flip our expectations? How does choreography read when it is performed against surfaces, rather than being framed or contained by them?

Just outside the Yerba Buena Theater for the Arts was the locale for Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations’ Still Life No. 6, the third premiere on the Saturday afternoon program, choreographed and performed by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg, with live cello accompaniment by Shanna Sordahl. In brightly colored, long-sleeve, high neck unitards, the pair shared an artistic mélange with the viewer, one combining deep creative process and choreographic specificity. Small reflexive movements repeated in the shoulders, fingertips and bouncing knees. Swinging arms reflected accumulation and diminution compositional devices as well as changes in intensity and dynamics. Attention to detail was everywhere in the excerpted work, be it in directional facings, the axis of the body, the use of stillness, and of course in the gestures and movements themselves. Such clarity and definition in every second, like the difference between the palms lying flat on the ground as opposed to resting on the knuckles.

As Still Life No. 6 reached its last third, Simpson and Stulberg moved away from the central performing square and towards an adjacent wall for a handstand series. Next the duo weaved through the audience, themselves sharing a text excerpt and then inviting audience members to continue with the text while they returned to their original performance space. In the program, there is a note that the work “…draws various elements found in Doris Salcedo’s installation piece Plegaria Muda.” Part of SFMOMA’s collection, this particular piece is a grouping of bench structures with sprouting greenery, arranged throughout a room. You walk through it, deciding how much time to linger in one spot, which benches to view and in what order. And so, there is an opportunity to be immersed within Salcedo’s installation. I felt like a similar immersive experience was evolving in this final section of the dance. And one recurring physical motif throughout Still Life No. 6 had me mesmerized. At several points, Simpson and Stulberg nodded and shook their head, looking to the surface of the ground, and almost charting a path or a line. I wondered, did this represent the greenery growth in Salcedo’s work? Or was it the path that you take when viewing Plegaria Muda? Perhaps it was something entirely different. I’m certainly looking forward to considering these questions again.

For the last piece, we transitioned to the middle of the garden space for The Movemessenger(s) in 2016’s Hummingbird, choreography by Angela Dice Nguyen. A rumbling electronic score with voice text sang through the open air. Into the space, dancers Hien Huynh, Cooper Neely and Linda Phung offered contemporary physical movement, heavily inspired by martial arts vocabulary: giant jumps and dives, sliding on the grass and powerful, deep pliés. With a winning combination of highly athletic choreography and a profoundly tender approach, Hummingbird felt narrative to me. Not linear, but conceptually driven. The notion of a hummingbird was present throughout, with literal motifs, like fluttering, pulsating and vibrating alongside more abstracted flight imagery and partnering. A lovely coupling of groundedness and suspension spanned the dance, which finished with dramatic Limón swings, interspersed with parallel jumps. And while completely coincidental, the low-flying birds that made multiple passes over the performance space during Hummingbird definitely added to the experience.

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