Thursday, August 1, 2013 Review by Janet Smith

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    Scott Martin
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    Thursday, August 1, 2013 Review by Janet Smith

    Fresh hybrids of the traditional and contemporary and some deeply political dance stood out at the WDA-A’s August 1st mixed program.

    The six-show bill opened with B.C.’s Git Hayetsk First Nations troupe performing a piece on a theatre stage for the first time; the group is more often seen at festivals and other outdoor events. In Ridicule, the company used the traditional mask dancing of its ancestors to address pressing issues of today–namely the way the Canadian and U.S. governments’ rules for “status Indians” go against ancient clan and family lines.

    The piece began with a voice-over explicating why these laws are offensive, but the message was much more powerful when the company went beyond speech and into its rhythmic, earth-bound mask-dancing.

    The artful symbolism included giant masks that were divided into quadrants–painted faces sectioned out with blocks of bureaucratic status forms. The dancers wore plain, black robes, metaphorically stripped of the intricate regalia that Northwest Coastal people use to identify themselves with their tribes. By the piece’s end, the performers from a multitude of nations had emerged in this pageantry, complete with button blankets, wide-brimmed spruce hats, and clothing emblazoned with the spirit creatures of peoples like the Haida, Tsimshian, Nisga’a’, and Gitxan.

    This first foray showed the largely unexplored potential for such a strong traditional form to move into contemporary times. Here’s hoping the group will build on its strengths–its multidisciplinary array of live drumming and visual art, its pulsing choreography, and its passionate politics–to develop the idea further.

    Toronto’s Ashima Suri, too, puts a new twist on an old ethnic form–but in the case of her Ashes, the ancient source, classical South Asian dance, is far less recognizable.

    The young dancer and social activist has branded what she does Indo-contemporary dance, and she turns to the gesticulating fingers and emphasized facial expressions that barat natyam and other traditional forms use to tell stories.

    But where Suri really gets subversive is in using those techniques to defy her culture: she’s interested in challenging the notion that people, especially women, should hide their emotions and put on a happy “Bollywood” face. In this solo, Suri contemplates a canvas portrait of herself and spirals into moments of grief, loneliness, and melancholy. At first she tries to put on a front, waving and smiling, then recoils again and again, slumping into sadness. Her extended, impossibly expressive fingers might convulse in the air, pound at her chest, or pull an invisible partner to her body.

    Moving to sobbing strings on a stage set starkly with chairs and a disembodied wall hung with an empty frame, she is a magnetic performer with an ability to pull out deep emotion–emotion that risks bringing judgment within her own community. Like the Git Hayetsk work, it’s a dance hybrid that you’ve never quite seen before–and you can feel the beginnings of something new here. There’s no denying Suri finds intensity through her face and hands in this deeply personal and fearless work, but one yearns for it to push into more full-bodied, fully realized territory.

    Erin Scheiwe Rockwell’s lighter but equally heartfelt portrait Key Notes was a solo that really did use the whole body to explore the inner life of a woman. Dressed in a formal pink gown, the Jackson, Missippi, dance instructor sat down at a piano to play, then moved away from the keys to explore the frantic, impassioned energy that runs behind the serene composure expected of a classical pianist. To George Winston’s melodious notes, she might close her eyes and play the percussive notes in the air, or roll to loll her head against the top rim of the piano. The piece was as much an ode to the music–you could see the notes ripple through Rockwell’s core–as it was to a musician. Key Notes could dig deeper, but it was a fluid, playful first etude into the subject.

    Much more intense was an excerpt from Chicago-based Seldoms Dance Company’s Monument, a refreshingly nonliteral take on our endless consumption and destruction of the environment. Carrie Hanson’s piece is supposedly inspired by human-made “monuments” like New York’s giant Fresh Kills Landfill trash heap–but that wasn’t immediately obvious from the duet shown. Instead, two entwined bodies thrust themselves into a cycle of abstracted collecting and discarding. In one repeated phrase, the dancers determinedly wiped at the bottom of their feet, as if their soles were covered in the shards and detritus of what humankind has cast to the ground. At others, they seemed to gather ever more from the air into their outstretched t-shirts. The piece found a driving flow all its own, with magnetic, committed performances from Damon Green and Christina Gonzalez-Gillett. Smart, kinetic, and thought-provoking.

    True to their titles, Flight Dreams and Hailey’s Albedo shot for a different plane entirely. Georgia choreographer Bala Sarasvati uses aerial hoops, more often seen in new circus, for a form of contemporary dance that reaches for cosmic and almost spiritual heights.

    Two performers, HyeYoung Borden and Emi Murata, whirled and flew across the stage in dizzying combinations. They were set against a swirling video of the skies and starry universe projected on a huge screen behind them—an effect that was by turns hypnotic, gaudy, and distracting.

    What makes this dance, more than acrobatics, is that Sarasvati is trying to find higher meaning and push the movement aesthetically instead of simply displaying tricks. The work successfully takes you to a mesmerizing, almost transcendent space–especially in an intimate space, versus a circus-style arena.

    You could call it an uplifting end to a program that launched a lot of new ideas.

     

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