Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Deborah Slater Dance Theater

Pictured: Sarah Lisette Chiesa
Video still: Jacob Marks
Deborah Slater Dance Theater
In the Presence of Absence
Livestreamed April 8, 2022

Absence and presence. In my mind, complete opposite states of being. Though after Deborah Slater Dance Theater’s (DSDT) recent showing, I might reconsider that stance. Perhaps the relationship between the two is more complex, richer, maybe even wonderfully murky. 

Last weekend, DSDT invited audiences back to their theater/studio space in San Francisco to witness an early works-in-progress edition of In the Presence of Absence, a collaboration between Artistic Director Deborah Slater and performer Tammy Johnson. Derived from interviews undertaken about these past two pandemic years, as well as company members’ personal journeys, the set of solos (and one group work) embodies the vast range of experiences that this unprecedented time has birthed. How folks have felt absence, how they have felt presence and how the two may have unexpectedly intersected. Original text and spoken word from Youth Speaks added a powerful layer of voicing to the various movement episodes.

The evening’s early solos, in which the dancers performed both movement and the text, were imbued with themes of reaching, pivoting, shifting and changing directions. Certainly fitting narratives for this time! The movement/word connection still needs to coalesce (not surprising for a work-in-progress), and it will be fascinating to see how those theatrical devices gel and morph over time. Movement-wise, the phrase material had an undeniable 90s quality: lots of backward somersaults, static attitude holds, Graham airplane turns and a slight improv-like esthetic. Later solos featured a recorded text, so the movement felt much freer and more open, except for one piece that was very hard to see because of the incredibly dark lighting. 

One of the most significant things about In the Presence of Absence is that it was truly a hybrid performance, with shows happening live and in person on both Friday and Saturday, and a livestream option available of opening night. Friday’s online offering happened in real time, as opposed to a taped version after the fact. And it went off without a hitch. The tech was without flaw, it wasn’t at all shaky, never cut out and the volume was right on point. This was a real triumph for DSDT. While many companies have been able to accomplish this hybrid format since March of 2020, it’s of note that others have not managed to pivot and shift in this way, including larger companies and presenters who have more resources and greater technical capabilities. 

Having said that, the night was far too late in starting. By the time the introductory remarks were completed, it was nearing twenty-five minutes from the appointed start time. Not an entirely uncommon occurrence, but a real pet peeve for many, including me.