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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
"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
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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