D.C. DanceWatcher

2015: A Look Back

For reasons that continue to surprise me, 2015 was a relatively light dance-going year for me. That said, I managed to take in nearly a top ten of memorable, exceptional or challenging performances over the past 12 months.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, on its annual February Kennedy Center Opera House visit, brought a program of politically relevant works that culminated, as always, in the inspirational paean to the African-American experience, “Revelations.” Up first, though, was the restless “Uprising,” an athletic men’s piece that draws out the animalistic instincts of its performers. Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter, drawing influence from his experiences with the famed Batsheva Dance Company and its powerhouse director Ohad Naharin, found the disturbing core in his 40-minute buildup.  As these men, in street garb – t-shirts and hoodies – walk ape-like, loose-armed and low to the ground, their athletic sparring, hand-to-hand combat, full-force runs and dives into the floor, ultimately coalesce in a menacing mélange. Is it protest or riot? Hard to tell, but the final king-of-the-hill image — one red-shirt-clad man reaching the apex of a clump of bodies his first raised — could be in solidarity or protest. And, in a season awash in domestic and international unrest, “Uprising,” with its massive large group movement, built into a cri de coeur akin to what happened on streets the world over in 2015.

wash ballet-sleepyhollow

The Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre has been delving into American literary classics and on the heels of his successes with both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in February his fearless chamber-sized troupe unveiled his latest: a full-length Sleepy Hollow, based, of course, on the ghostly literary legend by Washington Irving. But more than just a haunted night of ballet, Webre’s Sleepy Hollow delved into America’s early Puritan history, with a Reverend Cotton Mather character and a scene featuring witches drawn from elements of the Salem witch trials, expanding the historical and literary context of the work. This new dramatization in ballet, featuring a rich score by Matthew Pierce; well-used video projections by Clint Allen; and scenery by Hugh Landwehr; focuses on the tale of an outsider, Ichabod Crane – a common American literary trope. Choreographically Webre has smartly drawn not only on the expected classical ballet vocabulary, but he also tapped American folk dances and early and mid-20th century modern dance influences to expand the dancers’ roles for greater expressivity and storytelling. Guest principal Xiomara Reyes played the lovely love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, partnered by Jonathan Jordan. It’s hard to say whether this one will become a classic, but Webre’s smartly and carefully drawn characterizations and multi-generational arc in his approach to the Irving’s story expanded the options for contemporary story ballets.

Gallim Dance, a Brooklyn-based contemporary dance company founded  by choreographer Andrea Miller, made its D.C. debut at the Lansburgh Theatre in April. Miller danced with Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company of Israel’s most significant dance troupe, and she brings those influences drawn from the unique methodology Naharin created. Called “gaga,” this dance language frees dancers and other movers to tap both their physical pleasure and their highest levels of experimentation. In “Blush,” this pleasure and experimentation played out with Miller’s three women and three men who dive head first into loosely constructed vignettes with elegant vengeance. With a primal sense of attack as they face off on the stage taped out like a boxing ring. Miller’s title “Blush” suggests the physiological change in a person’s body, their skin tone and during the course of “Blush,” transformations occur as the dancers, painted in Kabuki-like white rice powder, begin to reveal their actual skin tones – their blush. In so doing, they become metaphors for shedding a protective outer layer to reveal their inner selves.

copeland mack

The Washington Ballet continued its terrific season with the company’s much ballyhooed production of Swan Lake, at the smaller Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in April. It garnered international attention for Webre’s casting: ballet “It” girl Misty Copeland, partnered by steadfast senior company dancer Brooklyn Mack, became purportedly the first African American duo in a major American ballet company to dance the timeless roles of Odette/Odile and Siegfried, respectively. But that’s not what made this Swan Lake so memorable, and mostly satisfying. Instead, credit goes to former American Ballet Theatre principal Kirk Peterson, responsible for the indelible staging and choreography, following after, of course, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. He drew exceptional performances from this typically less than classical chamber-sized troupe. The corps de ballet, supplemented by senior students and apprentices, really danced like a classical company. As well, Peterson, who has become an expert in resuscitating classics, returned little-seen mime passages to the stage,  bringing back the inherent drama in this apex of story ballets. My favorite is the hardly seen (at least in the U.S.) passage when Odette, on meeting Siegfried in the forest in act II, tells him the story of her mother, evil Von Rothbart’s curse and the lake, filled with her mother’s tears, as she gestures in a horizontal sweep to the watery backdrop and brings her forefingers to her eyes indicating dropping tears. Live music was provided by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra and made all the difference for the dancers, even though the company’s small size meant the act III international character variations were cut. While the hype focused on the Copeland debut, she didn’t own or carry the ballet, and here Mack was a solid, but not entirely warm Siegfried. This Swan Lake truly soared truly through the corps, supporting roles and staging.

June brought the Polish National Ballet, directed by Krzysztof Pastor, to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in lovely evening of contemporary European works. The small company – 11 women and a dozen men – are luscious and intelligent dancers who can captivate in works that push beyond staid classical technique. Pastor’s program opener, “Adagio & Scherzo,” featuring Schubert’s lyricism, twists, winds, and unfurls in pretty moments. There is darkness and light, both in the choreography and in designer Maciej Igielski’s illumination, which matches the shifting moodiness of the score. Pastor’s movement language is elegant, but not constrained, his dancers breathe and stretch, draw together and nuzzle in more ruminative moments, then split apart. In his closer “Moving Rooms” we first meet the dancers arranged in a checkerboard pattern on a black stage, each dancer contained in an single box of light. Using the sometimes nervously itchy score by Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, the dancers, clad in flesh colored leotards, used their legs and arms in sharp-edged angles and geometries. But the centerpiece of the evening was a new “Rite of Spring” – yes, to that Mt. Everest of scores by Igor Stravinsky – this one is choreographed by French-Israeli Emanuel Gat. Danced on a red carpet, the five dancers ease into a counterintuitive tango of changing partners, always leaving one dancer as the odd one out. The smooth and slightly sensuous salsa is the basis for the work’s movement sinuous vocabulary, as it quietly builds like a slowly simmering pot put to boil.

HUANGYI_lightened-593x396Man and machine – or in this case – dancer and computerized robot – meet in Taiwanese-born choreographer and dancer Huang Yi’s 50-minute work. The evening presented in The Clarice’s Kogod Theater, its black box at the University of Maryland in September, provided a merging of art and technology. KUKA, the German-made robot, used in factories around the world to insert parts that build autos and iPads, has become a companion and artistic partner for Yi. Performing to a lushly classical score of selections from Bach and Mozart, Yi, clad in a dark suit, dances with, beside and around the singular movable robot arm sprouting from KUKA’s bright orange base. There are moments of serendipity, when the two seem to be communing in a duet of machine and motion, and others, in the dimly lit work, when each strays off on a tangent – robot and human, may move side by side, or even together, but only one inhabits a spiritual profound space of flesh, blood and breathe. That was my take away from this intriguing experiment in technology and dance. Yi is at the forefront of merging art with new technology and his experimentation – he programmed the robot – is on the cutting edge, but the work doesn’t cut to the quick. Still, orange steel and computer chips don’t trump muscle, bone, flesh and spirit. I would like to see more of Yi’s slippery, easy silken movement, in better light and with living breathing partners.

camille brown 0

Camille Brown went deep in mining her childhood experiences in Black Girl: Linguistic Play, presented by The Clarice in the Ina & Jack Kay Theatre in October. The evening-length work draws on Brown’s and her dancers’ playground experiences, first as young girls playing hopscotch, double dutch jump rope and sing-songy hand clapping games. On a set of platforms, chalk boards that the dancers color on and hanging angled mirrors designed by Elizabeth Nelson, Brown and her five women dancers inhabit their younger selves, in knee socks, overall shorts, and all the gum-chewing gumption and fearlessness that seven-, eight- and nine-year-olds own when they’re comfortable in their skin. As the piece, featuring a live score of original compositions and curated songs played by pianist Scott Patterson and bassist Tracy Wormworth hit all the right notes as the performers matured and grew before our eyes from nursery rhyming girls chanting “Miss Mary Mack” to hesitant pre-adolescents, fidgeting and fighting mean-girl battles, to teens on the cusp of womanhood – and uncertainty. The work is a vibrant and vivid rendering of the secret lives of the little seen and less heard experiences of black girls. The movement is pure play: physical, elemental, skips and hops, the stuff of recess and lazy summer days. But there are moments of deep recognition, particularly one where an older sister or mother figure gently, carefully, lovingly plaits the hair of one of the girls. Its quiet intimacy, too, speaks volumes.

The dance event of the year was likely the much heralded 50th anniversary tour celebrating Twyla Tharp’s choreographic longevity and creativity. For the occasion at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in November, she pulled together a 13-member ensemble of some of her long-time dancers and some younger favorites – multi-talented performers who can finesse a quick footed petit allegro or execute a jazzy kick-ball-change and slide sequence or bop and rock in bits of freestyle improvisation with equal skill. For the two Tharp did not revive earlier masterpieces, instead she paid a sort of homage to her elf with a pair of new works – “Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie.” Each had elements of hat smart synchronicity that Tharp favors, her beloved little balletic passages that she came to embrace after years of more severe post modernism, and her larky, goofy wiggles, scrunches, and witty physical jokes, like pairing the “tall” girl with the shortest guy in the company, or little games of tag or chase and odd-one-out that are interspersed in both works. “Preludes and Fugues” was preceded by “First Fanfare,” featuring a herald of trumpets composed by John Zorn (and performed by the Practical Trumpet society). The two works, one a bit of appetizer, the other the first course, bled into each other and recalled influences of Tharp’s earlier beloved choreography, especially the indelible ballroom sequences and catches of “Sinatra Suite.” “Preludes and Fugues” is as staunch piece set to Bach fugues that Tharp dissects choreographically with precise footwork, intermingling couples, groups and soloists and her eye for the “everything counts” ethos of post-modernism where ballet and jazz, loose-limbed modern and a circle of folk like chains all blend into a whole.

“Yowzie” is brighter, more carefree, recalling the unbridled energy of a New Orleans Second Line with its score of American jazz performed and arranged by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9. Dressed in mismatched psychedelia by designer Santo Loquasto the dancers grin and mug through this more lighthearted romp featuring lots of Twyla-esque loose limbs, shrugs, chugs and galumphs along with Tharpian incongruities: twos playing off of threes, boy-girl couplings that switch over to boy-boy pairs, and other hijinks of that sort. The dancers have fun with the work, its floppiness not belying the technical underpinnings that make the highly calibrated lifts, supports, pulls and such possible. The carnivalesque atmosphere feels partly like old-style vaudeville, partly like Mardi Gras. In the end though, both works are Twyla playing and paying homage to Twyla – they’re both solid, smart and well-crafted. They’re not keepers, though, in the way “In the Upper Room,” “Sinatra Suite,” or “Push Comes to Shove” were earlier in her career.


Samita Sinha’s bewilderment and other queer lions is not exactly dance or theater, but there’s plenty of movement and mystery and beauty in her hour-long work, which American Dance Institute in Rockville presented in early December. In a year of no Nutcrackers for this dance watcher, this was a terrific antidote to the crushing commercialization of all things seasonal during winter holidays. Sinha, a composer and vocal artist, draws on her roots in North Indian classical music as well as other folk, ritual and classical music traditions. Together with lighting, electronic scoring, a collection of props and objets (visual design is by Dani Leventhal), she has woven together a world inhabited by creative forces and energies from across genres and encompassing the four corners of the aural world. Ain Gordon directed the piece, which sometimes featured text, sometimes just vocalizing, sometimes movement as Sinha and her compatriots on stage Sunny Jain and Grey Mcmurray trade places, come together to play on or work with a prop, like a fake fur vest or scattered collected chairs and percussive instruments. There were eerie keenings, and deep rumbles, higher pitched vocalizations, cries, exhales, sighs, electric guitar and steel objects banged together, all in the purpose of building a world of pure and unclichéd  vocal resonance. It would be too easy to compare her to Meredith Monk and Sinha is far less artistically self-conscious and precious. She is most definitely an artist to follow. Her vision and talent, keen eye and gracious presence speak – and sing – volumes.

© 2015 Lisa Traiger

Published December 31, 2015

War and (Hope for) Peace

Posted in Dance, Dance theater, Performance art, World dance by lisatraiger on September 21, 2015

Eleven Reflections on September
Written and directed by Andrea Assaf
Choreography by Donna Mejia
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
Washington, D.C.
September 15, 2015

By Lisa Traiger

Donna_Mejia 11 reflectionsOne of the most powerful antiwar statements of the 20th century remains Pablo Picasso’s stunning 1937 oil on canvas, “Guernica.” The painting conveys from its large canvas the atrocities, pain and suffering of war in graphic details of newspaper photojournalism, shifted through the surrealist lens of Picasso’s cubism.

“Eleven Reflections on September,” three-dimensionalizes the message of Picasso’s Guernica, using poetry, spoken word, original music, video and world fusion dance to bring this message that war garners no true victories into the 21st century. “Eleven Reflections” – part of the citywide Women’s Voices Theater Festival taking place this fall in Washington, D.C. and its surrounding suburbs – draws on the Arab-American experience both pre- and post-September 11. The result is a searing artistic statement of the troubling pain and displacement that occurs when the known world is over taken by the unknown, the uncertainties, the indignities and inequities that happen in war and uprising.

Beginning with a haunting violin and low call of the didgeridoo, flames flickering on the backdrop, poet and spoken world artist Andrea Assaf’s words tumble out. She begins at that brilliant and horrible moment in 2001 when the world changed. The planes and towers were down. Chaos reigned in lower Manhattan and Assaf speaks presciently: “everything that came before was over.” Now there’s a line, a division, a before and after, a moment where Americans in particular realized their vulnerability on the world stage. She speaks of the “smoke of memory” as video captures horrific images of twisted, collapsed buildings.

When black-clad dancer Donna Mejia enters, shoulders bare, skirt full and flounced, hair twisted into a topknot, the violin, played by Eylem Basaldi, shimmers, the doumbek played by Natalia Perlaza provides the syncopated beat. And Mejia’s head and shoulders roll, undulating to the beauty of the sound, replicating the wafting smoke alluded to earlier rising into the brilliant, blue sky on that once-gorgeous then horrific September day. Assaf talks of fruit trees, particularly the emblematic olive which takes generations before its pleasant yield can be harvested. Mejia’s arms reach like the branches, then reshape themselves into sharp-elbowed corners – trees cut down, towers downed, souls sacrificed in a split second of insanity and inhumanity.

Choreographically Mejia helps embellish Assaf’s text just as calligraphers often embelish Arabic script into curvilinear designs with graceful arabesques linking and winding into letters, words and verses. In a melding of dance forms referred to as transnational fusion, she draws upon tradtions from the Middle East, Asia, North Africa and western modern dance. As letters and words collect on the backdrop in Pramila Vasudevan’s video, Mejia has gathered hip rols and shimmies, arm undulations and shoulder rolls, convulsive contractions of the midsection and torso and deep lunges, her supple body circling above.

Assaf brings forth a basin of water infused with bunches of mint – an act of purifying, of hospitality, of offering. Mejia seems to expand to a haunting wordless chanted call let forth by Luna, then later, she plants both feet firmly into the ground, her solid wise stance an act of ownership and defiance as images of uprising populate the backdrop. The reflections, drawing from the specificity of Assaf’s experiences reified in poetry form the basis for a soul-piercing experiences. While September 11 has had life-changing effects on many aspects of our society and government, “Eleven Reflections” personalizes the act of communal remembrance and also illuminates the specificity of the Arab-American experience.

Mejia’s choreographic contribution to the work allows the words to resonate more fully, underlining and highlighting moments when Assaf’s poetry spurts forward, quickly relentlessly. The dance moments, a shoulder tremor, a head roll, arms twisting, snaking, like the wrapped coils of Mejia’s hair. The elemental mix of these complex dance genres, and the richly evocative world music forms serve to broaden and deepen the viewer’s experience. “Eleven Reflections” with its richly collaborative contributions of singular women’s voices illuminates the antiwar message at the root of Assaf’s poetry. As the poet, clad in black, forges forward, leaving the stage, Mejia takes over. Suddenly her hips tremor and erupt at breakneck speed, the jingling coins of her hip belt punctuating the drum and violin. It’s not merely celebratory, but, more importantly, it’s life affirming.

Picasso overwhelmed viewers with the horrors of war in his politically driven “Guernica.” Assaf’s canvas is equally large and she is not immune to the politics of this moment in time and the resonance of September 11, concomitant uprisings and crises occurring in the Middle East, and beyond. But she and her collaborators don’t wallow in the destruction. In their 21st century multimedia “Guernica,” they recount war’s horrors and the politics of hate, but then push onward, beyond. Amid the death, destruction, protests, and prejudices visited in the piece, blood still courses through veins, muscles still flex, hearts still beat, poetry still rings out. Life, even in the unrelenting grip of war and destruction, goes on and that is the true message “Eleven Reflections on September” leaves viewers to ponder.
Photo: Donna Mejia, by Jen Diaz, courtesy La MaMa
© 2015 Lisa Traiger September 18, 2015


Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, New performance, Performance art by lisatraiger on September 25, 2011

Eiko and Koma in “Land,” courtesy Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

Eiko and Koma
September 14 and 15, 2011
Kogod Theatre, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
University of Maryland, College Park, Md.

By Lisa Traiger
© 2011 by Lisa Traiger

Eiko and Koma choreograph at the intersection between earth and sky. They dance of earth and air, fire and water, animal and avian, and the elemental lifeforce: birth, death, sex and regeneration. Their dances reflect a vision of the world that is at once timeless and ageless, primal and new agey. The husband and wife duo — artistic partners for nearly four decades – returned to the Clarice Smith PAC for the first of three visits this season as part of a year-long creative residency, which includes both a retrospective of their collaboration on their singular choreographic vision and a new work to be made with contemporary music experimentalists the Kronos Quartet.

Aptly titled “Regeneration,” the duo’s first visit this season looks backward on their career-defining artistic output, beginning with last year’s “Raven,” and moving back in time to one of their earliest efforts, “White Dance,” from 1976. The four-decade span sheds light on the duo’s remarkable ability to captivate attentive dance goers with their distinctive manner of capturing the primal and most elemental nature of humanity and presenting it in living, breathing sculptural, painterly and poetic terms. Their bodies painted a chalky white, recalling the influence of Japanese butoh masters Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, Eiko and Koma become one with whatever and wherever they are performing. At the Smith Center, they swath the black box stage in a white canvas, seared with burn marks and strewn with black feathers and dried grass. They have also adventurously performed outdoors in a customized wagon-like caravan, at the base of an imposing canopy of a large oak tree, in a river and in a church cemetery, among other locales.

“Raven” begins in quietude. Pueblo-influenced composer Robert Mirabal’s drum-centered score, drawn from his original work with the duo on their 1991 piece “Land,” sets the work’s pace, as first Eiko, a thin slip of a woman, stretches and flexes from a fetal position. At one point she uncurls her toes one at a time, like a baby splaying her fingers. Later Koma enters, his movement more erratic and full bodied when played against Eiko’s finely porcelained shapes. The dance, though shortened to 25 minutes for this retrospective evening, feels like an incantatory chant, an appeasement to the gods and nature danced through the wildness of Koma’s stomps and forceful reaches skyward, and Eiko’s more restrained entreaties to a gentler earth mother.

“Night Tide,” a briefer duet from 1984, follows and becomes a paean to the beauty of the body. Danced without clothes, their bodies starkly white, the two become slow moving sculptures, amplifying their joints and muscles, flexed elbows and splayed toes, arched backs and bared buttocks. The sensuality here sings of the body beautiful; aesthetic in its everyday grace, magnified by the languorous pauses and meditative repose they attain in performance.

“White Dance” is the first work the pair performed in the United States and it reflects most vividly their early butoh training. The program’s excerpt of the 1976 work uses baroque music — Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord No 5 in F Minor and an Agincourt Carol – to oddly unusual effect. There’s Koma prancing around the same white canvas, kimono-clad, a look of pleasant tom-foolery on his face. At one point he hefts out and spills a bag of potatoes. It’s light and comical and recalls that the oft-assumed apocalyptic nature of butoh was just one side of the Japanese, post-Hiroshima dance form. Butoh also has its playful, absurd side and that’s where this dance is rooted. Later Eiko, wrapped in a printed kimono, becomes one with the backdrop, a moving image of silken threads woven into paisleys of butterflies and flowers. She nearly emanates a perfume in the delicate manner that she wafts gently across the scrim of two dimensional multicolored art, her body becoming one with the two dimensions.

There’s a boldness and uncompromising steadfastness knitted into the way Eiko and Koma fearlessly approach their movement projects. They never doubt the integrity of their bodies to speak volumes about life. In slowing down and living in the moment, they teach us lessons of profundity that are sorely needed in a world encumbered by the multitasking demands of technology. At a point in their lives when most dancers have long left the stage for more forgiving pursuits, Eiko and Koma create work that is ageless and timeless.

© 2011 Lisa Traiger
Published September 23, 2011

Picture Postcards

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance, Performance art by lisatraiger on June 21, 2011

“Places in Space”
Next Reflex Dance Collective
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.
June 19, 2011

By Lisa Traiger
Copyright © 2011 by Lisa Traiger

The eleven works curated into the dance evening “Places in Space” together read like succinct messages jotted on the backs of postcards depicting vacations in bucolic and exotic locales. Washington, D.C.’s Next Reflex Dance Collective founder/directors Erika Surma and Roxanne Morgan Rowley drew inspiration from outdoor locations, both near and far, and sought ways to viscerally connect with those places choreographically in their evening of mixed works. The pieces created a journey, from “Underneath,” a mesmerizing hand-fashioned installation/performance by dancer/choreographer Sharon Mansur and visual artist Ronit Eisenbach, to the rising and falling suggestive of tidal waters in Dahlia Nayar’s restful trio “aqua alta,” to Surma’s larger group in “Boundary,” hinting at rustling wind, rolling hills and steadfast marble monuments.

Last summer Next Reflex exhibited an interest in space-altering dance when for “Electro Shutdown & The Pea” the company reconfigured Dance Place’s black box theater into a pulsing disco, where lingerie-clad and wigged women strutted, flaunted and reveled in their embodied sexuality. This year’s reconsideration of Dance Place’s space took a tamer tone. Four pre-performance works included “Toilet Tub Tango,” danced on marley on the cement outside the theater, then inside Briana Carper used the bench and video in the main lobby for “Ether,” which felt constricted to the horizontality of the location.

Sharon Mansur in “Underneath”

The eleven works curated into the dance evening “Places in Space” together read like succinct messages jotted on the backs of postcards depicting vacations in bucolic and exotic locales. Washington, D.C.’s Next Reflex Dance Collective founder/directors Erika Surma and Roxanne Morgan Rowley drew inspiration from outdoor locations, both near and far, and sought ways to viscerally connect with those places choreographically in their evening of mixed works. The pieces created a journey, from “Underneath,” a mesmerizing hand-fashioned installation/performance by dancer/choreographer Sharon Mansur and visual artist Ronit Eisenbach, to the rising and falling suggestive of tidal waters in Dahlia Nayar’s restful trio “aqua alta,” to Surma’s larger group in “Boundary,” hinting at rustling wind, rolling hills and steadfast marble monuments.

It was Mansur’s and Eisenbach’s “Underneath” that accomplished what site-specific work should: alter a space or one’s experience of that space. In the small side gallery, Mansur strung twine from wall to wall, measuring, cutting, knotting off pieces to create a crazy-quilt loom of string in the confined all-white space, which led to a white curtained passage into the theater. Patrons were forced to stoop beneath the spidery web of twine to pass through white drapery before entering a new world. Mansur in crafting this tangled web, to which later she strung white gravel stones tied with blue strings, remained unruffled, quietly contemplative of her task-oriented performance.

Entering the theater, Tina Fratello’s installation, “Stay/Waiting,” offered a jolt after the serene calm of Mansur’s room-sized art project-cum-performance. Following an S-shaped swath of plywood, the audience meandered the stage passing three women situated in rocking chairs mesmerized as they stared into the gray-blue snow of spent television sets. Later the three writhed, pounded and banged those old-technology TV sets, their cloth coats swinging. The piece does what strong choreography should: creates a world and draws viewers into this lonely, desolate place where silence, blank picture tubes and longing have usurped the lives of these three.

Nayar’s spare trio “aqua alta” worked due to the simplicity and clarity of its structure. Three white planks of sailcloth hung above the stage, while the dancers –- Emily Oleson, Adriane Fang and Nicole McClam -– huddled on the floor, rolled and recovered, rose and fell slowly, their movement gestures growing stronger, denser, more muscular, until finally each in turn lifted a stiffened arm, suggesting a sailboat’s bare mast. Then the moving landscape subsided to stillness.

Mansur’s and Eisenbach’s “Underneath” continued following intermission, this time with a rocking chair facing a floor-to-ceiling loom-like hanging of twine. On the program “Underneath” became both commentary and evocation of the other choreography, drawing from concepts of the dances and their choreographic elements; stones, images of water, earth, hills and mountains coursed through the study, which took Mansur from the loom to the rocker, before entering a blue-lit opening in the curtain as she ultimately exited to worlds unseen.

Other works, particularly Surma’s “Boundary” and “24 Hours” and Rowley’s “shhh,” incorporated much amorphous push-and-pull and weight-sharing contact improvisation as choreography but little that was memorable. The darkly foggy trio “Shadowmark,” by Monica Warren, with its quirky birdlike twitches, flexed wrists and beating arms, recalled prehistoric birds in what looked like feathers on Rebecca DeLapp’s costumes. Janet Blair performed the piercing oboe solo, “Piri,” by Isang Yun.

The evening closed with Rowley’s “edge,” featuring Sandra Atkinson and Fratello accompanied by cello and strings by Zoe Keating and One Cello x 16: Natoma. Clad in slips, the two amply endowed women carried stones in their skirts, which they scattered and formed into an open-ended outline of a box on the floor. The workmanlike nature of the piece, and the sense of isolation as these two women scurry and gather, again suggested a need for human connection. Instead, the piece returned to the desolation of the opener “Stay/Waiting” — the task of laying out the stones disintegrating into chaos, the rocks flying and scattering across the stage, the women ultimately unhinged.

Sharon Mansur in “Underneath,” photo by Todd Clark
© 2011 by Lisa Traiger
Published June 20, 2011

Sands of Time

Posted in Dance, Hip hop, Performance art, Tap dance by lisatraiger on July 16, 2010

Keepin’ It Moving: The Legacy of Sandman Sims
Choreography and direction by Holly Bass
9th Annual Hip-Hop Theater Festival
Dance Place, Washington, D.C.
July 10, 2010

By Lisa Traiger

© 2010 Lisa Traiger

Past and future mingled, albeit uncomfortably, in Holly Bass’s “Keepin’ It Moving: The Legacy of Sandman Sims.” The tribute to great tap dance showman Howard “Sandman” Sims strung together vignettes intended to trace the evolution of the indigenous American percussive form from its early days as buck and wing, to its heyday in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, through its evolution into break dancing and hip hop. An installment in the 9th annual DC Hip-Hop Theater Festival, the 80-minute performance featured a range of Washington, D.C.-based dancers with expertise in tap, hip hop and breaking, joined by spoken word artists, all accompanied by onstage by deft dj Soyo. By rejigging the Dance Place black box, with a portion of the audience sitting on stage and a section of the chairless bleachers left empty for performers to dance on, Bass gave the evening an interactive flavor, copasetic with the hip-hop theater aesthetic. Unfortunately, sight lines for those with onstage seating were less than ideal and those in the traditional bleachers seemed quite a distance from the interactive stage.

Bass can be an engaging performer and her one-woman character-driven performance pieces, among them “Diary of a Baby Diva,” are astute, jewel-like studies that reveal kernels of universal truths awash with pop culture icons. When, as in “Diva,” she engagingly refers to specific cultural moments, her works succeed best — the particular hitch kick of a 1970s “Solid Gold” TV dancers, or the elegant grace of a besotted Diana Ross wannabe. Then her work becomes freighted with resonant universality, a lesson that much good theater relies on: at its heart, as different as we are on the surface, beneath the specific historical, cultural or personal baggage we carry, humans are more alike than different.

"Keepin' It Moving: The Legacy of Sandman Sims," photo Joshua Cogan

Sandman Sims (1981-2003) trod the boards at the Apollo Theater for decades as “the executioner,” holding court on amateur night with a broom, a hook and soft shoes when scores of hopefuls would air their talents. Awaiting the nervous claque: a mercenary crowd that could boo even the most earnest, if off key singer. Sims learned the tap trade on the streets, for then it was a vernacular form, much the way hip hop, too, evolved a generation or two ago on street corners and nightclubs. Like tap, which in its heyday was appropriated by white performers on the vaudeville circuit, then on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals, hip hop has also gained commercial agency on television, in movies and videos and as a genre taught at nearly every local store front dance studio across suburbia. In “Keep It Moving” Bass tries valiantly to connect the dots between the vernacular rhythm tap of Sims’s generation with the b-boys and fly girls of the 21st century. The point is a salient one. It’s just been done before — and better on Broadway. Savion Glover’s 1995 collaboration with George Wolfe on “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk” trod the same path, although it brought hip hop into the tap vernacular, rather that foisting tap onto hip hoppers, which seems Bass’s intent.

While Bass is not a tapper (although she does a respectable Lindy Hop at one point), her trio of women tappers – Melissa Frakman, Quynn Johnson and Alyse Jones — riff on the Sandman Sims legacy. They offer up some unison bars, then Frakman mediates on a phrase from the 1979 documentary “No Maps on My Taps,” which helped spur the revival of interest in old school rhythm tappers. On a sheet of rolled out white paper, Frakman dips her heeled tap shoes into plates of paint brushing, stomping and dotting her feet in a moving scroll of lines, squiggles, dots and dashes across the blank canvas. Abstract expressionist footprints lending a different voice for feet to speak. Later the trio painstakingly prepares shallow plywood boxes, then as sand slips through their fingers, they replicate the scraping, rough hewn music Sims made famous in his signature sandpapery dance. Sims, though, typically danced in soft shoes, not taps, which create a tinnier sound. When four (unnamed) members of the Beat Your Ya Feet Kings crew displayed their rubbery limbed breaking, popping, locking and acrobatic feats, the crowd approved, as they did when rapper Tabi Bonney offered a DC original rap, “The Pocket,” with its funky go-go-esque syncopations indigenous to the District music scene.

The 80-minute evening’s highlight comes late, after the some stilted narration on the Apollo scene, a mock Lindy Hop competition, a sad-clown miming caricatured Sandman as stage manager, and a few hip hop numbers. A mock Apollo amateur night soars when Luke Spring, looking ready for church in his blue blazer and pressed trousers, nonchalantly takes the stage. With a seriousness of purpose set on his face, he takes to the raised wooden platform, where he breaks it down, laying on rhythm after syncopated rhythm, his neatly combed blond hair bobbing with his shuffles, tremolos, stomps, old school time steps, Cincinnatis, over the tops and paddle and rolls. Spring is seven. Seven years old. Yet, he essentially schools every dancer on the stage with an innate rhythmic awareness that is remarkable for one so young. The future of tap certainly looks brighter with Spring. What didn’t resonate in Bass’s tribute to great old school tapper Sims, the evening’s namesake, was the man himself. Sims’s life was long and interesting, hard but lived to its fullest. He wasn’t always successful as a tap dancer, at least not enough to support a family, but he found a way to keep himself and his family going, while continuing to dance. That tenacity and devotion – to his family and his art – is the legacy for which Sims should be remembered. That the old-time rhythm tappers paved the way for the Lindy Hoppers, the breakers and hip hoppers of succeeding decades is a story that has been told. While Bass found tap’s future, she hasn’t yet succeeded in telling the story of its illustrious past.

Published July 16, 2010

© 2010 Lisa Traiger