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Review Journal, 9-23: Southern California Solution
Ellis off the Island, and Other Tales from "America's Finest City"
By Brian Schaefer
Copyright 2005 Brian Schaefer
SAN DIEGO -- Over 75
performance ensembles and studios helped the Celebrate Dance Festival
mark its tenth anniversary over the last weekend in August, bringing
everything from strict Vaganova ballet to solid hip-hop, salsa and
tango to jazz and tap, Irish step dancing to Balinese dance, and
all varieties of modern dance -- from local groups to New York export
Ellis Wood -- to Balboa Park. Presented by Eveoke Dance Theater,
the festival boasted workshops and demonstrations, several outdoor
stages, and endless performances in the large Casa del Prado Theatre.
And it was all free.
San Diego hosts four
or five strong modern dance companies that produce some solid, intriguing,
and enjoyable work. The problem with having so few established companies,
however, is that in the course of a season, one might catch the
same piece several times. Repeated viewings can be effective and
valuable with the right work, but this scarcity of the local scene
also makes the arrival of something new and fresh, like the festival
offering from Ellis Wood Dance, much appreciated.
The Ellis Wood hour
(each company at the festival performed for a maximum of 60 minutes)
began with "Lila Goes Down," a fierce work, set to music by punk
band Four Hero, that exploded with flying limbs and flying bodies.
The dancers of the all-female company used their hair as weapons,
whipping it in all directions while their bodies undulated in unison.
The non-stop energy channeled something between an all-night rave
and an all-night orgy.
"Lila Goes Down," the
choreographer said from the stage before the next piece, is a "blast
of female energy, power, and sensuality," intended to depict women
as strong and in control of their bodies and their lives.
I was shocked -- and
thrilled -- to see the choreographer explain her work.
The previous weekend
I'd brought my mother to a dance performance. She enjoyed the show
but said she wished that an explanation had been available to assist
the audience in interpreting the work. My mom is a very intelligent
woman. She can create and find her own meaning in art. But she doesn't
always want to. If a choreographer is trying to say something, she
would like to have at least a hint about what it is. Some insist
that dance is what one makes it, that there is no fixed definition,
no one right way to see it, no single story that is told. They hold
that each person will view dance differently, based on her or his
own personal experiences, and that every interpretation is a correct
interpretation. This argument is completely valid. Yet I also find
that I become more engaged with dance that comes with descriptions
and explanations of context, history, and intention. This does not
prevent one from creating a personal account of what was seen; yet
it can inform the way the dance is viewed. More important, it makes
the dance accessible for those not used to finding meaning in abstract
art, particularly in dance. My mom -- who has grown to be a fan
of modern dance -- would have valued the insight Wood provided to
her work. It didn't take the mystery away. Rather, it was as though
the choreographer were letting the audience in on a secret, and
we were more closely connected as a result.
Next Wood presented
an excerpt from a larger work-in-progress, "Hurricane Flow," which
will ultimately consist of four solos representing four elements:
air, fire, earth, and water. The Fire solo, created for the festival,
was performed by the sultry Christine Willis. Appropriately dressed
all in red, Willis embodied a flame -- bouncing softly on the floor,
spinning frantically on her feet, pulling violently at her long
hair, and sinking back to the floor, all to a steady hypnotic beat,
before extinguishing herself with exhaustion.
The third piece presented
by the company was the first eight minutes of a 60-minute work,
"Pignut," named after a savory hickory treat found in the eastern
United States. The Dance, Wood said, is a "female 'Lord of the Flies,'"
her take on the 1954 William Golding novel. Taking the stage once again, this time prior
to the piece's presentation, Wood described it as a commentary on
what happens to a society that is headed in the wrong direction.
The pignuts -- which sat in a pile on stage -- represented, she
said, that which pulls out the worst in human nature. Each performer
who encounters the pignut reacts to it in a different way and for
each one, it brings out a deeper, darker side. The dancers brought
their own thoughts and meaning to the concept. With this knowledge
in hand, the ensuing piece became that much more personal. No longer
were we watching dancers acting out a story; we were seeing these
women actually reveal their own dark sides.
Dressed in black, the
women fought for possession of the pignuts, and, upon gaining it,
used the newfound power to subjugate the others. Greed and jealousy
infused the piece, and an air of panic and despair hung over the
stage. Desperation led to frantic struggles, and mistrust quickly
divided the ensemble, leaving each woman on her own. What made the
movement effective in conveying these ideas was that the struggles
did not seem choreographed. The women fighting for the pignuts really
fought for them, and those trying to keep them away tried in vain
to honestly keep them away. These were not mere positions and placements
the dancers were told to hit -- a true confrontation appeared to
be taking place.
Finally, the company
presented "Island Solutions," a work commissioned by a theater in
Germany to be a site-specific piece for that theater. Relocating
a site-specific work to a different site essentially makes an entirely
new work. The movement, costuming, and lighting allowed the piece
to hold its own in this San Diego space, yet clearly something was
lost in the transfer. Projecting from a single hand-held stage light,
a beam created mysterious tones with huge shadows on the back of
the stage which the dancers played with in their structured improvisations,
moving toward and away from it, basking in the light and then fleeing
from it as if to escape or hide. The title was given by the commissioning
theater and Wood interpreted it by seeing each of her dancers as
distinct and independent islands. The challenge, then, was to allow
for the individuality of each dancer to come out while bringing
them all together in a cohesive whole, thus the solution to the
problem of the islands. Part of Wood's solution to this challenge
was in the costumes. Each dancer contributed creative input into
her costume, submitting certain styles, colors, and fabrics to the
designer so that each outfit emerged as an elaborate, individualized
construction which, when the ensemble came together as a group,
conveyed quite the colorful picture.
Ellis Wood Dance's trip
across the States was a welcome addition to Celebrate Dance. The
troupe joined a collection of San Diego-based companies which presented
provocative and polished performances featuring some very talented
dancers. San Diego Dance Theater bid farewell to longtime (20 years!)
member Faith Jensen-Ismay with a tender solo on a stool. Jensen-Ismay
left the company to pursue her own work with her Mojalet Dance Collective,
which here presented "Movin' On," an hour-long look at the life
of Joe Tezak, a champion wrestler who suffered a freak spinal cord
injury which left him wheelchair-bound. Tezak performed in his wheelchair
in several touching duets.
Butterworth Dance Company
presented, among several other pieces, "Binary," a stunning duet
between Rayna Stohl and James Ellzy, and "Skewed," a take on Bach
that alternated between traditional interpretation of the music
and silly comic gestures. A highlight of the last day of the festival
was McCaleb Dance's "La Rumorosa," a haunting work demonstrating
incredible control, strength, and endurance from the four remarkable
dancers. It is a piece I have seen several times this year, yet
one that is endlessly fascinating, becoming more polished with each
performance. The dancers leap into each other's arms without warning,
fling themselves to the ground, and climb all over each other, but
all with the force of a whisper. It is an intense, patient work
that commands the audience and owns the stage. It is one of the
most engaging works of dance I have ever seen.
The festival brought
dance of every kind to San Diego free of charge. Ellis Wood jumped
up on stage to talk to the audience about her inspiration for her
work and the processes she used to create it. Celebrate Dance was
successful not only because of the mere magnitude of the production
or the sheer number of groups presented or even the quality of the
dance. Rather, it was successful because it made dance accessible.
Financially accessible, intellectually accessible, and emotionally
accessible. The number of people in attendance suggested that people
really want to see dance and love to watch it. Maybe we just need
to make it a little easier.
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