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Flash Review, 7-17: Terpsichorean Tasters Menus
3 Gems in L.A.'s Lo-fat, Lo-fiber Smorgasbord

By Sara Wolf
Copyright 2000 Sara Wolf

LOS ANGELES -- Dance Kaleidoscope is the event Los Angeles critics love to hate. Birthed in the late 1970s as part of the now-defunct Los Angeles Area Dance Alliance's efforts to build public support for Southern California dance, the annual summer showcase was successfully resuscitated in 1988 and has been going strong, with much the same agenda, ever since. Unfortunately, boosterism is an agenda that plays to the common denominator of crowd pleasing, reminding us that dance is indeed a spectator sport.

True to form, DK's opening weekend at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex of the California State University cut a broad swathe across dance genres, with world dance forms such as flamenco, folklorico and Philippine classic dance shoulder to shoulder with a little tap, a little ballet and various contemporary dance idioms (predominantly obliquely expressive modern). At its best the showcase format is problematic, but in the absence of any unifying theme or curatorial vision (despite Friday night's billing as "Angel's Flight") beyond what will play to as broad a crowd as possible, both concerts this weekend amounted to little more than terpsichorean tasters menus, with an emphasis on accessible fare.

The representation of world dance also continues to plague the festival. After many years of not including any -- a sorely obvious faux pas given the available resources in this, one of the most culturally diverse cities in the nation -- organizers responded initially by dedicating one evening solely to world dance. Participants objected to the ghettoization and have been thrown into the mix ever since, a workable resolve one would think given the already all-inclusive nature of the programming. The problem is that it just doesn't fly. Dances arising from generations of cultural tradition were reduced to bright and shiny spectacles of sound, rhythm and color.

Both programs featured a preponderance of solos and duets that were brief, compact affairs in which a character or single metaphor might've been developed. I suppose the curation of shorter work may have been an intentional decision on the part of the organizers, in an effort to be able to include more, more, more without mounting an all-night marathon. Necessary, perhaps, but unfortunately lo-fat, lo-fiber. Not much to sink one's teeth into, with any satisfaction. In fact, if I were to rely on Dance Kaleidoscope to reach a conclusion about the state of the art of dance in Los Angeles, it wouldn't be flattering to local choreographers, who for the most part don't seem to know how to develop unique movement vocabularies or build complex choreographic structures.

I realize such sweeping generalizations are not altogether useful; making them is one of the pitfalls of reviewing a weekend featuring sixteen separate pieces (besides being the kind of thing that can incur the wrath of individual choreographers). At the other extreme, I could cursorily delineate the pros and cons of each piece or perform a comparative analysis, since this is a natural side effect of the experience, as the running verbal commentary of the woman seated behind me proved. I'm just going to skip straight to a few gems of the weekend: a tribute to the late Viola Farber by one-time life and dance partner Jeff Slayton and new works by two of my favorite contemporary dance choreographers, TONGUE artistic director Stephanie Gilliland and Shel Wagner.

Slayton's heartfelt homage, "Remembering Viola," was created for Farber's memorial service at Sarah Lawrence College in March 1999, and predominately features a video montage of Farber dancing and waxing philosophical about dancing, framed by three spare movement moments, haiku-like in their simplicity and understated expressivity. The most touching moment is the central stanza: Slayton bathed in a pool of soft yellow light dancing solo behind the scrim on which the archival footage of them, dancing together, is projected; his arms encircling an empty space that once held, supported and lifted her. Farber (obviously) isn't nearly as well known out here as she is back East, but Slayton's unadorned love and grief at her passing is universal.

Contrary to what I said earlier, both Gilliland and Wagner have been diving into very idiosyncratic ways of moving and coming up for air with interesting results. Gilliland is a contemplative sensualist. She builds pieces slowly, beginning meditatively, almost exploratory, movement arising out of a wide grounded stance and rotating hips, wending up through her spine to ripple out her arms. It's as if she is listening for something, and when she begins to hear it, you notice her start to smile, a seductive, I've-got-a-secret smile that nonetheless reveals the pleasure of the movement welling up and beginning to widen into larger circles and faster rebounds. A leg snapped out and around, or a torso arced up and over may send her into a ricocheting impulse-based phrase before she reels it in, returning to the slow sustained bass line of the simple path she is inching along, to the internal hum she hears.

Wagner, on the other hand, loves speed, momentum and flying through the air. I should admit here that Shel and I choreographed and danced together back in the early '90s, but I never quite had the strength to catch her when she would toss herself across the room in my direction. Since then, she's been doing and teaching Pilates, Contact Improv, and Alexander technique, as well as rock climbing, so has become amazingly strong while maintaining her intrinsic carefree abandon -- a wildly delightful combination. With Stefan Fabry she has found a partner who shares in her childlike love of play and together they created a duet, "To go, please," out of quirky pedestrian movement and high-voltage partnering. With Shel arching and flipping over seats and the audience to get to the stage, the piece served as a good opener for Saturday evening's concert, and there was something so unaffected and engaging about it that I just wanted it to go on and on.

Dance Kaleidoscope continues Saturday, July 22 at the Japan America Theater and Sunday, July 23 at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater. For more information, call 323-343-6683.


Sara Wolf is dance critic for the L.A . Weekly and a freelance arts writer based in Venice, California, where she lives with her girlfriend and three cats. She is just beginning to write a masters thesis on dance criticism -- a degree she began ten years ago, back when she was still performing and choreographing. In the interim, besides writing about visual art, performance art, dance and theater, she worked as managing editor of High Performance magazine, marketing director for the arts council for the city of Long Beach, and managing director of the World Festival of Sacred Music-the Americas, a nine-day intercultural, interfaith festival that opened a global project initiated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

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