Tripping the Light Bombastic
Watching West Wave Dance Festival’s Program One was like being invited to spend a night at summer camp. The six ensembles gathered around the fire were a playful bunch, young, fresh and all too eager to please. Occasionally this compromised the impact of the performance. (An agreeable work involving four young women, clad like babies, squealing and braying like farm animals didn’t stop the show so much as slow it down.) What that performance lacked—a degree of studied confidence—Program Two fervently had in its employ. School was back in session. At times, the half dozen works featured Saturday at Summerfest skittered along with anxiously pretentious leaps and bounds. Remember the smartest kid in class, whose arm jutted upwards impatiently before the instructor finished asking the question? Part of you marveled at the intellectual dexterity and bravery of the little swot who put his reputation on the line with each attempt at academic accomplishment; but part of you held your breath: what if he got it wrong?
The first work of the evening had as its basis a painting by Albert Evans Feltus. Titled “Trio (in the space between),” it is credited as a joint effort between Isadora Duncan Award nominee Deborah Slater and the writer Deborah Crooks. Staged on a set of three metal chairs and two rubber balls—one red, one green—a triad of young women sinuously integrated themselves with their environment, each wearing the same expressions of tenuous repose as their corollaries in Feltus’s painting. Costume designer Jeanne Henzel’s pastel unitards and turbans softened the stark imagery, which was important, as there was no real connection among the dancers, and none whatsoever between them and audience. The performers were wise to infuse a little humor into their roles: the sight of one of them picking up a ball and hypnotically cooing to it was as silly as it was transfixing. But as Slater’s choreography got more geometrically complex (the chairs and balls were utilized far beyond their function as props), the dramatic arc of the work deepened as well. Her previous work with the Pickle Family Circus was put to good use: clowning, acrobatics and miming blended cannily under the ODC big top.
“Duet in Three Parts” was a gripping pas de deux told in three narrative segments. Choreographer Scott Wells devised an abstract dance-play that vaulted into the dizzying romantic realm where Susan Stroman’s “Contact” resides. That former Broadway sensation made contemporary dance palatable for wide audiences, thanks to a breezy, kick-up-your-heels flashiness. (The film adaptation of “Chicago” also added pop velocity to the form.) But with this work, Wells took things to a more intimate, but eventually more exhilarating place: he evoked the weightless sensation of puppy love, tinted (and tainted) by the crush of deflating passion. The pair in perpetual flux were portrayed by Gabriel Forestieri and Christine Cali, each exhibiting tremendous grace and vim: it was easy to be swept up in their depiction of a guarded relationship. To begin with, the sound of a ringing phone was interrupted by their entry and she, in a zesty turn, “picked up,” lifting Forestieri, his leg in modified arabesque, signaling that these two were on equal footing in this relationship. An emotional colloquy ensued, revealing hidden levels of pride and vulnerability. Their clothes were individually removed throughout the piece until, both naked, they shifted over each other and concluded their liaisons. A great deal of sensitivity had been invested into this—no matter how often nudity is placed onstage, common responses are cynical sighs and gasps from the seats. Here, it was neither a trick nor exhibitionism. Compounding the sensual tautness, the audience was able to identify with the (at that point) almost unbearable anticipation that an unanswered dial tone can summon. It was easy to understand the palpable energy pulling the couple together, and easier still to find oneself pulled in with them.
If the proclamation made by “Duet in Three Parts” was “a little less thinking, a little more feeling,” then the work by Brittany Brown Ceres, called “Wandrian,” boasted precisely the opposite obligato. The busiest piece of the evening, Ceres’s patchwork of ideas, movements, sounds (the discordant music was punctuated by goose squawks) and colors never found the right balance. All six dancers, cutting at the air with their hands and shimmying across the stage, looked uncomfortable and confounded as they made every attempt to provide equilibrium to the choreographic equivalents of tongue twisters. Linda Brown’s costumes didn’t help. The women were clothed in what appeared to be sundresses dyed with photographic patterns, which distracted from any subtleties in the steps, of which there were some. Ceres knew how to create a mosaic of activity onstage, but without focus; what resulted was a vociferous collision of concepts.
The second act demonstrated the sublimely heady heights to which contemporary dance can raise one’s spirits. “Songs for You” was a dazzling ensemble work that evoked the unjaundiced glow of camaraderie that American musicals like “Rent” and rock bands like the Grateful Dead gave off. Erin Mei-Ling Stuart presented a collection of vignettes that brought couples and loners, friends and neighbors, idealists and misanthropes together the way Dickens interwove chapters. Set to a handful of pseudo-antithetical songs by John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats, the dancing depicted these fringe folk carrying each other through the trials that accost young men and women who brave the artistic and emotional minefields of SoHo. Street scenes, domestic disputes and internal monologues received eloquent delineation, thanks to Stuart’s aptitude for capturing a moment and letting it resonate. “Songs for You” burned with relevance and glimmered with the hope that these, and all dedicated artists, might find creative fruition.
Next, Lisa Townsend premiered “that i am not you,” a didactic work that literally preached what it practiced. The dancers, Alisa Rasera and Townsend, aped each other’s movements and played off one another’s figure, resembling opposing reflections of a looking glass trying to unite. Accompanied by a jazz bassist and guitarist—who were placed too far upstage to avert attention, but too far offstage to appreciate fully—Rasera and Townsend never found the locus of the repetitive choreography. It didn’t help that they had to compete with the sonorous spoken rhetoric by Tom Patton, which was little more than a series of sardonic platitudes of the “it is good to be wise, but it is wise to be good” variety.
The final piece of the evening, “Eddy / against the main current,” also featured a narration of sorts. A poem by James Kass, delivered in slam mode (an oppressive method of recitation, to begin with), left one initially dubious. But skepticism melted away once Sara Shelton-Mann’s company proceeded to heighten the drama of his admittedly purple prose, while his impassioned phrases provided a map of the heart and mind for them to follow. “My president sleeps like a baby / I do, too / Waking up every two hours, screaming,” he shouted, and the performers concentrated on embodying the moment, not simply reacting to it. A revolutionist manifesto set to dance, Shelton-Mann’s vision was one of angry disenchantment, painstakingly kept in check. Rarely has the act of sitting still looked this demanding: it wracked the nerves watching these dancers can heat. Group work was given space to breathe, solos were granted precise amounts of import. “Eddy / against the main current” proved to be an unqualified triumph, closing Program Two with a thunderclap.
Volumes were spoken—occasionally shouted—at Summerfest on Saturday. Much of what was said left an indelible impression on the audience, and on the performers themselves. The ODC Theater raised the intellectual bar with its second program, though the feeling that one had come away from a lecture or a rally was difficult to shake. We were talked at for much of the show, and for those in attendance hoping to temporarily disconnect from the harsh social and political truths of the real world outside the theatre, this was a push in the wrong direction. Summerfest’s Program Two made a vulpine call for the senses to open loud and clear. Only rarely did one feel the need to say, “yes, you’re right, you’re brilliant, now stop talking and do your homework.”