writers on dancing


Dancing that Breathes

"Eclipse of the Soul"
Liss Fain Dance
Cowell Theater at
Fort Mason Center
November 12, 2004

by Rita Felciano
copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano

Liss Fain is a choreographer who has been making dances in the Bay Area at least since the early nineties. It's been work whose intelligence and scope has been never less than intriguing. She has choreographed around concepts of physical and mathematical science. Last year she programmed an evening of a number of choreographers where she tried to "choreograph" the various pieces into a coherent whole.

But sometimes what we saw on stage did not come up to the ideas. You always understood, and even admired what was attempted; but you were often left wanting more. But Ms. Fain kept at it. Though trying out different formats, she always worked with ballet trained dancers and good collaborators, such as James Meyer and, above all, the excellent lighting wizard, Matthew Antaky. This persistence and consistency finally seems to have paid off.

In this most recent concert, the first full-evening program of her own work in four years, something seems to have jelled. The choreography—all of four pieces date from the last two years—is still a little stiff and overly-calculated. But for the most part it breathes; its ebb and flow pulls you in, not unlike a novel's characters who acquire a life of their own quite separate from their creator's.

The nine dancers—Kevin Anthony Adams, Marlowe Bassett, Jennifer Beamer, Joseph Copley, Gianna Davey, Bryan Ketron, Elizebeth Randall, Jocelynn Rudig and Shauna Vella-are a somewhat eclectic mix. The great majority are new to the company. Several are new to the Bay Area; others have been recruited from the currently dormant Oakland Ballet. While they are decently trained and the choreography—ballet-inspired modern—is technically not that demanding, the performances were not as clean as they should have been. Too many rough edges, flubbed landings and near misses marred, particularly, the faster sections. These dancers need more rehearsal time to get rid of the kinks. But there is the makings there of coherent ensemble.

One of the pleasures of this encouraging evening was Ms. Fain's sophisticated choice of the music. No vapid pop for her; she went for the real thing: J.S. Bach, Gyorgi Ligeti, Mongolian throat singer Ulziisaikhan Lkhagvadori and Hamza El Din. But when the choreography's relationship to the music was not all that clear or wore a little thin, one never had to take Balanchine's advice to close the eyes and just listen to the music.

The opening "Crossing" was probably the evening's least engaging work. The busy choreography included lots of lifts, wraps and mutual body manipulations but much of it looked as if it had been forced onto the dancers. Also too often, the sextet, in gorgeously flowing white culottes, looked like wannabe ballet dancers. They pushed jetes or turns, for instance, as if they were in class or an audition instead of treating them as part of a phrase.

Ms. Fain deployed the sextet in varying combinations of two, sometimes detailing them with unexpected gestures or quirky accents. In one Ms. Bassett, a tall red-headed dancer partnered a much shorter M. Ketron, their differences complementing each other just fine. Ms. Randall's softly assertive solicitous entryties towards the stoic Mr. Copley raised poignant questions of compatibility.

The evening's first premiere "Eclipse", for which Ms. Fain collaborated with videographer Austin Forbord, was haunting. On a full-stage video screen, Mr. Forbord presented Mr Lkhagvador, seated in a verdant landscape, singing Mongolian chants and playing a "lute." Gradually, the landscape became more transparent as first one, then two, then three dancers (Mss. Bassett, Beamer and Vella) began explorations of solitary trajectories. Eventually—if I heard correctly—a second voice entered—Mr. Lkhagvador at first performing in counterpoint to his video image, than alone. Seated upstage center, in a magnificent native outfit he looked like royalty.

Mr. Meyer's costumes, in red, brown and green, suggested "gird your loins". The calm, deliberate choreography vaguely evoked temple figures with dancers taking turns paying obeisance either in dance or kneeling, forehead to floor.

With the premiere of the three part "The Unknown Land" (whose first two sections were shown at the last Summerfest), to Mr. Lygeti's Piano Concerto, Ms. Fain took on a lot. It's a piece in which fragmentation is offset by continuity and a kaleidoscopic sense of shimmering sound patterns. The choreography focused on nicely differentiated duets and luscious lifts. Performing against each other, the dancers flew onto the stage in ever changing configurations, sometimes in direct response to the music, sometimes veering off in apparently independent directions.

The two outer movements framed a central section in which dream-like dancers crossed at the back of the stage, setting off foregrounded duets. "Land" is the only work in which Mr. Adam performed. A short, muscular dancer, he was used too much as a porteur, a role in which he clearly felt uncomfortable.

According to Ms. Fain's program notes, the concluding "River at the End", served as a resolution to an evening whose thematic concerns had entailed "tension, conflict and resolution" when "one's self-definition and determination clash with the unchangeable course of historyŠ.." etc. etc. etc.

What the piece was, with the dancers clad in gold and bathed in Mr. Antaky's warm lighting, was a glorious romp of communal energy, carried aloft by Mr. El Din's Nubian music, as interpreted by the Kronos Quartet. Incorporating silence rather nicely, the piece was more enjoyable for the commitment that the dancers brought to its joyous spirit than the originality of the modern/folk inflected choreography. Some touches of what looked like "orientalisms" in vertical poses and gestures, did not exactly look at home in choreography inspired by African music. Ms. Beamer was the guide for this band of revelers traipsing through a serpentine landscape.

Volume 2, No. 43
November 15, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano


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last updated on October 25, 2004