writers on dancing


At the Top of Her Game

Janice Garrett & Dancers
Cowell Theater
San Francisco, California
December 1, 2005
By Rita Felciano
copyright ©2005 by Rita Felciano

It’s been four years since Janice Garrett returned from Europe to put down roots and focus her dancemaking in the Bay Area. While the thrill of discovery of a talented choreographer working at capacity has somewhat abated, her company can still thrill even longtime dance observers. My companion, a keen and at times rather cynical dance watcher, kept muttering “I can’t believe it” throughout Janice Garrett & Dancers fourth home season program.

Before Garrett took off in the nineties for guest choreographing and teaching overseas, I had seen a small work with two people and a movable wall called, as I recently learned, “The Conversation.” It was one of those pieces that didn’t quite work but with enough ideas—movement and otherwise—to make it stick to the back of your mind. Garrett choreography today is nothing like that earlier work. For one thing, there are no props, no sets. It’s dance and music, the later being an additional reason for seeing the company. Garrett seems to have taste for contemporary Baltic music, most of it little known around here. Yes, there is Arvo Part, but more interestingly, names like Petris Vask, Teljo Tormis and Varttina, a Finnish vocal ensemble, expand ones sound palette.

For “Brink” one of two of this season’s world premieres, Garrett stayed closer to home. Yet the collaboration with Bay Area composer/performer Moses Sedler, on a commission from Meet the Composer, made sense. Sedler, according to his program bio, has an interest in “improvisatory music, eastern European folk and Indian music.” His score abounds in tense textures, with acerbic and percussive writing for the strings.

“Brink” was performed by Garrett’s ensemble made up with some of the Bay Area’s best independent dancers: Jennifer Bishop-Orsulak, Kara Davis, Julian De Leon, Bliss Kohlmyer Dowman, Heidi Schweiker and Nol Simonse. Davis and Simonse looked particularly good in Garrett’s full-bodied choreography.

Coming as it did as a program closer, the new “Brink”could have set trajectory that Garrett might further pursue in the future. But the four-part sextet’s showed the choreographer doing what she does so well and pretty much did all evening: non-stop streams of phrases that spin and curl and sputter and retreat with the easy of a doodle except that that you can see the hand controlling the pen. Arms, notably, are mobile, pulling the back into deeply felt articulation but also spreading like waves into the flamenco-inspired “mariposa” gestures for the hand.         

Unabashedly hooking into pre-post-modern dance, Garrett’s voice remains a welcome addition to the Bay Area mix. While her artistic identity is distinct, immensely likeable and a joy to watch, it remains to be seen how much farther she can go within it. You want an artist to have a personal signature but you don’t that to become a straight jacket.

“Brink” moves at ever greater speed to the point where towards the end some of the connections began to look frayed. Conceptually Garrett seemed to explore the idea of the duet as an elastic mode of coalescence and separation, unisons and recombinations, solidity and evanescence. Dancers spill out of the wings in twos and get sucked in by them. They may get together in a quasi ritualistic unison circle or in a stacked chug-along diagonal but always they pair up. Kohlmyer and Davis— both of them blondes, one tall, the other petite—played off each other’s temperamental traits beautifully. Both of are fiercely intense but Davis is more the luxuriating of the two.

A key moment in “Brink”—which returns leading up to the the finale—has the  three couples perform in unisons side by side each. Each duo is plunked into a separate square by Lighting Designer Christopher Marvich. Then the duets separate, and one partner peels off, ever so slowly walking upstage and joining a penumbral trio. The effect was of losing one’s shadow, or half of one’s identity. Except that you didn’t realize it happened.

The other world premiere, the appropriately named “Fast Brass” appeared a trifle in the sense that bravura pieces often can be. This one looked like a sped up comedy routine, full of precision moves and nonchalance clowning. Dance with the finger on the fast forward button. Fun to watch—and listen to with Fanfare Ciocarlia’s speed-devil Gypsy music—it deployed five of Garrett’s good-natured dancers—they seem to be up for anything--in black, including berets. With considerable gusto and tongue-in-cheek, they hopped, kicked, marched and flew through the choreography’s loose-limbed puppet patterns. “Brass” was a good introduction to Charles Moulton’s post-intermission “18 Person Precision Ball Passing”, here receiving its San Francisco premiere.

Choreographed originally in 1979, supposedly as a “metaphor for community and cooperation,” the work exists in many sizes. This 1988 version was well performed by Garrett’s own, augmented with twelve at large dancers. Pattern dancing works best when the patterns are transparent, clean and with enough variety to maintain interest This one worked admirably with balls passed in small circle, changing levels, through braided arms and knots, canons, unisons with the performers sitting, plieing, stretching and walking. There even were waves, and I always thought they were an idiosyncrasy of stadium audiences.

The remainder of the program offered two rep pieces. “Ostinato”, set to Spanish Baroque music as interpreted by Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI, still looks excellent. A favorite part, in which Garrett’s dancers become slightly exasperated with baroque composers’ love for repetition, is as funny as when first seen in 2002. “Path on the Rug” (2004), again performed by Schweiker and Simonse, is dark, with its desperate sense of inevitability even more acute. Spiraling, hanging on and trying to escape, these two lost souls seem to love and hate each other in equal measure, unable to distinguish between the two. (Both “Ostinato” and “Path) were reviewed on this website, vol. 2, number 12, March 21, 2004).

Volume 3, No. 45
November 28, 2005

copyright ©2005 Rita Felciano



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last updated on December 5, 2005