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Flash 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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