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'Home' Run
Tania Isaac Dance Projects Debuts in Funky Glory

By Lisa Kraus
Copyright 2004 Lisa Kraus

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PHILADELPHIA -- It's a treat to see something as robust and fresh as the debut performance of Tania Isaac Dance Projects in "Home Is Where I Am," performed at the Painted Bride April 15 -17. This St. Lucia-born choreographer, veteran of Rennie Harris Puremovement and Urban Bush Women, was joined by a superb group of dancers for a vibrant and poignant look at the immigrants' condition of both loving and hating where they came from and where they've moved to.

Through scenes evoking the color and smells of island markets, the sweetness of mangos eaten in silence, the wildness of Carnival, and the sinuous and juicy moves of reggae and zouk, Isaac paints her homeland with lushness and longing. Her new home -- where she bundles up against winter, where she's eager for contact with fellow islanders, where the dancing can look hard-edged and as speedy as the freeway -- is where she can "live life on (her) own terms." Cues for meaning are gently slipped in through Isaac's incisive text and Ryan Saunders's diverse video images.

In "Home Is Where I Am," subtitled "memories, dreams and fantasies," the narrative is built up through a series of distinct numbers. First Shanni Collins solos in buttery yellow, with pliant knees, articulate hips and rippling torso. A video of immigrant life all over the globe reminds us that this piece speaks to widely held experience. A tree canopy seen as if from below on a slow moving boat evokes a lacy, lazy ease. A section called "compass" is more hard-edged contemporary movement, combined with Kenyan dancer Wanjiri Kamuyu's watchful angled stillnesses. Next, on video, Isaac dresses for Wisconsin winter, followed by a goofy trio of live snow bunnies kicking it up behind a soloist making snow angels. The onstage scenes switch landscapes and dance styles, and stretch and shrink in numbers. A large group dances with unison whipping turns and rhythmic rocking pelvises. There's sureness, vitality and as much ripe juiciness in the dancing as in the mangoes eaten onstage. Isaac dances with intelligence, not giving too much and not holding back either, not teasing but wildly sexy. In 'Masquerade,' dreamy creatures leap, turning in mid-air with flying red fringe trailing behind. In addition to Isaac, Collins and Kamuyu, the terrific cast includes Zoia Cisneros, Dawne-Marie Watson, and Kate Watson-Wallace, with appearances by Ritajean Clark, Misia Denea and Jessica Gaines. There's a dip toward the end as we feel saturated, wondering what further there could be to say. Then in a final hip-hop tinged solo, Isaac seems to say "This is it, made it just fine!"

Formally, I question Isaac's strategy for transitioning from her distinct sections: always with a stop, a walking out, a lull. The audience claps in between these discrete sections too, adding to the choppy effect and lessening the impact of an otherwise accumulating composite of dance, visual and aural imagery.

Isaac is at a fine point in her dancing life: full of promise, passionate, with vital things to say about home, connection, and celebration. How unusual to come across a young artist who while virtuosic in the best senses of the word doesn't seem to take herself too seriously! There's plenty of easy humor and a slightly self-deprecating quality to Isaac's presence and that of her dancers. This makes it all the more easy to lap up the delicious licks and images in the work. On the other hand, everything about the production is beautifully attended to. Fellow St. Lucia-born costume designer Jeannique Prospere's many costumes are slightly off-kilter, fun renderings of carnival costumes, village dress, pomo concert dancers, sirens and street gals. The mottled backdrop set and light design by Jorge Cousineau proves handily flexible, providing unusual projection surfaces to meld with video imagery and in a saturated red tone evoking a dream state, or in bluish hue, a snowy yard. The sound, a fitting song for each section, was compiled by Rodney Whittenberg.

It's hard to say why exactly I perceive Isaac's focus as being so outward, toward community. Perhaps it's the knowledge of her special role as the first two-year 'Resident Bride Artist' at the Painted Bride, Philadelphia's multi-arts showcase, which has long taken a lead in presenting alternative, cutting edge and multi-cultural works. Perhaps it's the series of classes in Caribbean dance forms being offered in tandem with the performances. It could be the emphasis in the work itself on values and relationships, or maybe it's just the clear audience response that seems to signal that the crowded house sees her as one of their own.

Lisa Kraus is currently teaching Trisha Brown's "Glacial Decoy" through Philadelphia Dance Projects.

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