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In from the Cold: Winter Dancing at REDCAT

CalArts Winter Dance, The Sharon Disney Lund Dance Series,
REDCAT, Los Angeles, California, 16 December 2011 –

Four works were presented at the CalArts Winter Dance event for this year: first-performances of works by two CalArts choreographer-professors, followed by the renown Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin. The evening revealed stark differences in approach, the first two works incorporating traditional and modern movements within a larger context, while the Naharin works used no conventional movement. Contemporary dance comprises a very broad range of styles, even at a school such as CalArts, known worldwide as a haven of experimental and avant-garde creativity.

One of the two premieres of the evening, Los Angeles choreographer Stephanie Nugent’s multimedia dance work Yes Is Not Passive made comprehensive use of the four talented, athletic dancers who performed it. Set against a discontinuous kinetic backdrop of Roberta Shaw’s three sometimes-simultaneous projections of aerial footage of the tsunami that struck Japan earlier this year, the dancing operated variously in and out of phase with the film, words spoken by the performers in English and Japanese, and sounds assembled by Robin Cox, Paul Matthis, and Nugent. The result was a swirl of compelling actions: so much happened throughout the work that it was impossible to fully appreciate it after one performance. The movement featured rapid elevation changes, with dancers charging to the floor, swiftly spreading out like a wet mop, then rotationally exploding upright. When long, lean Megan McCarthy processed these motions, one could not help but imagine an accelerated time-lapse sequence of a plant sprouting from the ground, then decaying. In fact, each of the performers seemed invited by the choreography to excel in their unique skill sets: Gregory Dorado’s strength and surety; Jose Luis Trujillo’s nimbleness and speed; Lynn Suemitsu’s acrobatic grace, voice, and acting; McCarthy’s ballet chops and endurance. It is significant that Nugent credits her performers with collaboration credit (along with understudy Hannah Cavallaro, who did not appear in this evening’s performance).

The two men and two women found themselves in different pairs, witnessing each other when not in a couple, sometimes coming together, facing one another in the four corners of a floor-lit square, sometimes leaving the stage entirely, other times somersaulting away from each other in formal ways, with toes pointed mid-roll before landing upright. Juxtaposed with flowing forces were static settings, such as having the dancers on a bench with the projection directly on their bodies, diffusing any possibility of delineating the image or seeing the dancers clearly. The tsunami serves as a metaphor for the most difficult out-of-control events in life that can challenge even the most solid relationships. The use of spoken word in the sound design (“Yes.Yes.”) and the dialogue (“Look at me. Look at me!”) forces the audience to engage with the work on a linguistic level, if not a narrative one. The ensemble eventually leaves spoken language by shifting to an invented semaphore, using hands and upper arms in rapid unison movements that recall Trisha Brown’s Accumulation. Apparently no single form of communication was entirely satisfactory to discuss life-altering events, and after 20+ minutes the propulsive work had subsided.

Nugent has continued in her recent work to push boundaries while remaining grounded in virtuoso technique, her curiosity about synthesis of other art forms with dance causing the tradition to be refracted in demanding and thrilling ways. One hopes that there will be more opportunities for her to share this work with an even larger audience.

The other CalArts choreographer represented in the evening, Colin Connor, was the most overtly traditional of the three on the program, although he incorporated props and staging in interesting ways in his work The Sea, the Sea. Dancer Laura Berg began the work on an elaborately constructed metal platform that resembled a portion of a pier, and two other performers (Janaye McAlpine and Shane Raiford) joined her. They left the pier and proceeded through some pairings (boy/girl, boy/other girl, girl/girl) and solo sections on the stage as they displayed extreme spinal flexibility and rotation, which seem integral to Connor’s aesthetic. Connor, whose work has been presented throughout the US and Europe, has said that he is “fascinated by the idea of bodies falling through time,” and the most appealing and memorable moment was when two of the dancers glided to the floor and rolled in parallel, but at different rates, creating an out-of-phase pattern between their two sets of spinning feet. It was brief, but it was brilliant—and one wished for more such delicious surprises.

Ohad Naharin’s choreographic propensities, especially his reverence for ensemble processes, extends such postmodern work as that of Lucinda Childs or the surreal actions of Pina Bausch. While his dancers in the Batsheva Dance Company must have solid technique, they don’t move in any way that could be seen as balletic or traditional. As with David Zambrano’s work, the core language of Naharin’s choreography is founded on exercises he developed following an injury which left him in chronic pain. He calls this movement Gaga and Danielle Agami, a former member of Batsheva, immersed 20 CalArts students in this system to prepare for performing his works for this concert. Both illustrate Naharin’s interest in exaggerations of quotidian motions magnified by a group’s simultaneous delivery of the movement. The first piece, “Humus,” from the larger 2005 work Three, featured a group of female dancers operating in clusters, walking, squatting, touching their tongues to their noses, and vocalizing. When they faced away from us and folded forward, their richly colored tights made their ten lower bodies seem more like a field of vegetables than human bodies. The music was Brian Eno’s introspective “Neroli,” a musical opposite with the following work’s score.

“Echad Mi Yodea,” the title of a traditional Jewish song, was the backdrop for the electric crowd-pleasing final work of the evening, originally created for his company in 1990 as part of the dance Kyr. The hard-rocking version of this minor-key Passover song was recorded by the band Tractor’s Revenge, and the movement works in aggressive synchrony with that driving rendition. Seventeen dancers stood side-by-side in a semicircle across the stage, men and women alike wearing identical black business suits, white shirts, and black hats. Each dancer used a chair as a platform for movement, leaping, writhing, and doing an exuberant seated “wave” for every chorus. After each verse, another article of clothing was vigorously stripped off: hat, jacket, shirt, pants. By the end, the dancers were wearing only men’s blue underwear, and a pile of clothes had formed between them and the audience, who gave a powerful ovation for the celebratory, ritualistic dance.

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