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Flash Review, 4-13: Elkins Abroad
Radio Doug from Santa Barbara Dance Theater

By Brian Schaefer
Copyright 2005 Brian Schaefer

SAN DIEGO -- A newish work by Doug Elkins, set to a range of pop music from The Beach Boys to Bjork, was among the offerings of the 10 in 10 West Coast Performance Festival, which made the intimate dance community here grow substantially larger this past weekend with a line-up of artists from both coasts. Performed Friday at San Diego State University by Santa Barbara Dance Theater, on whom it was created last summer, Elkins's "Love is Short and Forgetting So Long" took the audience on a type of eclectic radio tour of hit pop songs spanning five decades.

"Love is Short and Forgetting So Long" opened strongly with a comedic interpretation of The Beach Boys's "Don't Worry Baby," featuring two pairs of side-by-side duets in which one partner made half-hearted attempts to snuggle with the other, only to face frustrated rejection time and time again. Adopting some major pouts, the dancers continuously knotted themselves into awkward positions, embodying the often uncomfortable and embarrassing situations that love tends to create for inexperienced young lovers. Or all lovers, for that matter.

The way Elkins cleverly played against the lyrics of The Beach Boys song allowed the simple gestural choreography to become comical rather than dull. As the Boys wail that "everything will turn out alright," the lovers onstage shoot each other looks to kill. Unfortunately, the other sections of the piece don't use their music quite as successfully. When a choreographer incorporates popular music, lyrics become an additional tool with which to work, and can be used in several ways. In this piece, Elkins chooses in the first section to visually oppose the lyrics, while in other sections he appears to simply ignore them to focus on the rhythm of the music and of the words themselves. Both options are valid, yet arbitrarily switching between the two throughout one work can be a bit confusing for an audience.

From the couches of the lovers we moved to the honky-tonk bar, where two men and a woman line-danced in cowboy hats while blowing huge bubbles with gum (an interesting yet underdeveloped prop) as two women took turns lip-synching to Sheryl Crow at a microphone onstage. Elkins used the country beat as inspiration but the karaoke-style set-up didn't have any apparent purpose, other than giving the section the appearance of a music video for the song. He then moved on to hip-hop (with which he's worked before), setting a section to the music of hip-hop queen Missy Elliot. Throwing in jetes and pirouettes to the beat didn't prevent Elkins's interpretation from falling into some typical hip-hop conventions, such as the strictly unison and forward-facing choreography of sharp, isolated movements.

Rather than exploring how such a movement quality might inform a more classical way of moving, Elkins maintained the separation by generally allowing only the woman wearing a tutu (which was passed around among the three dancers) to perform the turns and leaps while the other two "backup dancers" did their best MTV music video impersonation. Hip-hop is its own unique form of dance technique and it requires training to perform it properly, just as one must train extensively in ballet, jazz, tap, or modern techniques to master them. To set a hip-hop piece on a modern company insufficiently familiar with the technique compromises both the integrity of the dance and the dancers. The three dancers here fared much better than other attempts I have seen, but overall the dancers still seemed a little out of their league.

Next up on the tour of musical genres was an entertaining drunken brawl to the music of Elvis Costello. The five men of the company, in all their frat-boy glory, guzzled beer, smashed cans on their foreheads and started fighting each other in rough -- and impressive -- partnering and lifts ending in a huge dog pile from which emerged a woman who performed a solo toRufus Wainwright's "Vibrate." Her initial appearance from under all the intoxicated men inevitably cast a dark tone onto the situation. She'd not been visible before and it was unclear how she had managed to become smothered by these men. The rape imagery was there; the clear physical representation of male dominance was unmistakable. But Elkins didn't go there. A chance to perhaps comment on a serious social issue turned into a light love dance.

After taking the audience from oldies to country (if Sheryl Crow can be considered country) to hip-hop, Elkins introduced Bjork, for whom traditional musical genres do not apply. And with her came a strange shift in the mood of the piece from light-hearted comedic takes on well-known songs to dramatic duets with no sense of irony or tongue-in-cheek. The dance began with two duets performed simultaneously and detracting from each other, before a third couple then took the stage on their own to perform a composed duet that was easier to follow and thus more satisfying. Too bad, then, that the ending, in which the first two couples appear onstage suddenly and depart just as quickly with the third, was abrupt and anti-climatic, so much so that it took a moment to realize the work had actually ended.

Santa Barbara Dance Theater also offered Jerry Pearson's "Strange Boat." As a friend put it, the piece was "harmless." It was pleasant, but not memorable. The movement was neither sharp nor smooth but rather appeared a bit messy and jagged. The group shuffling that repeated over and over again was not interesting enough to earn so many samplings. The use of technology that projected words and images onto a screen behind the dancers didn't always serve the work effectively and actually made it confusing at times. Watching parts of lyrics fly by on the backdrop enhanced neither the dance nor the music, and when one chooses to count down several times from ten to one, as occurred on the screen, the audience will begin to anticipate something special or different to mark the countdown. When nothing appears to change, as was the case here, the tool of the video becomes irrelevant, if not downright frustrating. One smart use of the video was the projection of arrows in various directions that compelled the dancers to then shift body and focus. Maybe this was so satisfying because there was a clear relationship between technology and dancer. Rather than simply co-existing, they were interacting. The technology influenced the dance as opposed to merely framing it.

Levydance then stepped up to the plate with two sophisticated pieces, "Holding Patterns" and "That Four Letter Word." If one thing can be determined from these two dances, it's that in Benjamin Levy's company, the dancers are not gentle with each other. Both works featured aggressive partnering that was nicely balanced with sustained moments of breathlessness which made it look like the dancers had to stop to consider what was happening before agreeing to continue on, in what sometimes looked like the path to self-destruction. Levy's fine dancers brought strong focus and intensity to the works as well as a momentum that continued to build, perhaps most rapidly during the charged pauses. Levy's choreography brought wit and complex partnering particularly in "That Four Letter Word" (which word Levy has in mind we can only guess, and the piece gives us hints that point in two very different directions -- one sacred, one profane).

The work began with a study in voyeurism, as three silhouetted dancers faced upstage to watch a couple in red perform a dance of passion before leaving the stage, whence the remaining three took turns partnering and alternatively observing each other. They examined each other in moments of comfort, intimacy, and frustration. Levy and Brooke Gessay then occupied the stage in a fierce duet effectively accentuated by Gessay's audible breaths (or were they gasps?).

Taking a step away from the seriousness, the three other dancers returned to center stage with balloons. Letting them dart around the stage as they lost air, deliberately restricting air release to create that obnoxious screeching sound, and rubbing the balloon over their faces and bodies, the dancers turned the toy into everything from noise maker to sexual stimulant. Though providing an arbitrary and seemingly unconnected break between the dancing, the balloons brought some much-appreciated humor to the floor. Dancing then resumed with a desperate and frantic solo by Gessay, in which she was trapped by the rest of the group. This eventually turned into a clever, complex tango for five, with breakout duets that included one delicious pairing between Levy and Christopher Hojin Lee.

The entire program was part of Four on the Floor, a sub-set of the 10 in 10 Festival, which was co-presented by Sushi Performance and Visual Art and Jean Isaac's San Diego Dance Theater. The following night, on a program with Levydance, San Diego Dance Theater performed Isaac's "Car Men and the Women Who Love Them," with a live soprano integrated into the work who sampled songs from the Bizet opera. All three companies featured in Four on the Floor provided a solid lineup of entertaining works and highlighted the need for more outside artists to share the space with local companies in San Diego.

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