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DanceBoom! Festival

by Lewis Whittington

January 21 - February 8, 2004 -- Wilma Theater, Philadelphia

In the eloquent prologue to the 3rd annual DanceBoom! Festival, Japanese choreographer Kenshi Nohmi and Hiromi Karube from Dance Theatre 21 performed with Manfred Fischbeck's legendary hometown troupe Group Motion. Nohmi and Karube, dressed in stark white tees and tai-chi pants, broke through to the circles of light with hypnotic isometric movements which ended with a third dancer in an upstage spotlight, and the three splayed their bodies and simply rolled their heads.

Gidon Kremer's rich strings of Bach disintegrated to an industrial sound field as other dancers took over the stage. Nohmi's alternately romantic and stark patterns gave Group Motion's dancers atypically lush transitions and an overall joyous flow. GM regularly produces dramatic, thought provoking content, but here they have never created more serenely beautiful dance.

Once again DanceBoom! occupied the uptown Wilma Theater on the Avenue of the Arts for 3˝ weeks of what curator Nick Stuccio calls a "snapshot" of the independent, avant-garde, and cultural dance scene in Philadelphia. This is certainly a modest assessment by Stuccio, who also steers the dance-heavy Fringe Festival in the summer. The rest of the year, he scouts dance artists worldwide and now annually brings choreographers and dancers to Philly's downtown theater audience to heat up those cold January nights.

Here are a few more "snapshots" of the highlights and lowlights of DB! 04:

GM's dance cultural exchange, "Direction of Harmonization" by choreographer Nohmi, shared a bill with the always cheeky Headlong Dance Theater, who collaborated with the Arrow Dance Company (also from Japan) for the dance-farce "You Are So Beautiful." The evening seemed to encapsulate what Philly's independent dance is in diversity and style and what it isn't in production and polish.

Headlong Dance Theater specializes in subverting any expectation that a dance audience might have, but "Beautiful" felt more like being hazed by fraternity that wasn’t going to let you in anyway. Their simple concept of dance karaoke in "Beautiful" began with the sound of a trickling stream and with Amy Smith placing small footstools, one in front of the other, as if she were placing stepping-stones over a stream. Still waters run deep…or maybe not at all. The footstools handed to her and later a precarious perch built with them -- the floor was slick with such symbolism.

What often looked like a studio exercise of improvisational dance nonetheless framed comic cross-cultural moments. The dance-exchange is with guests from Arrow Dance Company who at the mercy of Andrew Simonet's "spontaneous" choreography. Then they turn the tables, and the mis-translations in voice and dance ensue, producing dance theater of the hilariously absurd.

But, like a played out sketch on "Saturday Night Live," HDT doesn’t know when to stop. If a treacly rendition of John Denver's "You fill up my senses" doesn’t drive you off the edge, the bail-out finale with a brave Amy Smith flatly belting out Prince's "Nothing Compares To You" -- finished off rather sweetly with everybody in a pile-up and joining in -- certainly will.

A Sunday matinee brought Melanie Stewart Dance Theater's "Babel: Shock and Awe" -- scalding political dance theater choreographed by Stewart and directed by Peter Clerke, her frequent collaborator in "bouffon" theatrics. "Babel: Shock and Awe" is a retelling of The Tower of Babel as an allegorical modern morality tale of the terrorist era. There is little doubt where Stewart and Clerke stand on Bush's policies in Iraq, and they sacrifice dance to deliver their message.

This work produced mind-bending visuals, which unfortunately buckles under a heavy-handed premise. Stewart, Catherine Gillard, Bethany Formica and Janet Pilla dressed in campy (and dusty) tuxes ala Deitrich in "The Blue Angel." Hollowed out gray boxes are used to depict trenches and eventually the tower. Gillard, looking like a corrupted Lady Liberty, smokes a cigarette and recites prophetic scripture, which is interrupted by hypocritical and cynical statements by President Bush about war.

A more cohesive and eloquent political statement was Dancefusion's reconstruction of Anna Sokolow's anti-war work "Time+," first performed in Philly by the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War. Sokolow uses short, character driven scenes and pantomime to evoke the sights, sounds, and emotions that boiled over into 60s social upheaval. Meantime, she doesn't forget that this is dance, and her fusion of social dances of the time and menacing manners is captivating. Dancefusion's troupe of nine, under the direction of Lorry May, delivered this engrossing movement drama with conviction and flair. Because DF is so deft at such restoration, they could even consider expanding this vital work.

The five-year-old Chinese Opera Society valiantly attempted to restore the classicism of the Chinese Opera's "Farewell, My Concubine." The ancient Chinese historical fable is turned into court-dance pageantry (in miniature here, with only ten dancers depicting a threatening army of warriors) revolving around the intrigues of opposing feudal lords trying to gain control of their country.

Shuyuan Li, portraying the political femme fatale, a fourth-generation dancer to perform "Farewell," displayed authenticity of movement and voice (she sings a long aria in a dissonant pitch) in rendering the careful symbolism depicting love, betrayal, battle, victory, and finally, her suicide. As it is, this undiluted work is more for students and fans of authentic cultural dance than commercial audiences. It was admirable to see the undiluted purist cultural approach that took us to another century, but a little poetic license for modern palette would strengthen the core piece.

Perhaps the most ambitious bill of the festival brought hip-hop fusionist d. Sabela grimes, Asian-American poly-culturalist Roko Kawai, and African-tribal-black-club-vogue-archivist Charles O. Anderson together for one compelling program. Their autobiographical statements became three singular journeys. This program certainly fulfilled the artistic need, if not the complete performance level, of what DanceBoom! should be.

d. Sabella grimes -- dressed in a multi-colored shredded skirt over pants, red tee, boa wrapped angles and feathered mohawk -- unleashed his liquid robotics astride a computer screen for his polemic called "40 acres and a computer chip," on the surface, about modern exploitation of African Americans in the .com age. Grimes essays an intellectually challenging terrain within his movement that veers from soft-robotics, limb-whipping bust-outs, and adagio hip-hop. Grimes' sustained control was impressive, as were some indelible moves, but his single-note context imploded. The symbolism came down like an anvil when he ripped the back off of the computer and scooped out soil.

No one was prepared for Charles O. Anderson’s electrifying "Body and Soul: Funky Suite." Onstage with a fiery basso-rhythm section and six other male dancers, Anderson was stripped to the waist in a floor-length gold skirt, scuttling across the stage creating a meditative and ritualistic prayer session of black gay men in a literary renaissance in Philadelphia in the 80s with writers like Essex Hemphill, James Baldwin, and Anderson himself. Under poems and manifestoes, Anderson's dancers exploded in mesmerizing and virtuosi patterns that fused classical tribal African dance with post-vogue club b-boy expressionism. Soloist Michael Velez breaks out in an unbridled twirl that is as breathtaking as Odile's 36 pirouettes in Swan Lake.

Kawai's essay "Improvisation with Kimono (Four)" had her dressed in full geisha garb, dismantling every piece off of her body and placing them ceremonially at the edge of the stage, and redressing in modern clothes. And her transformation becomes a ritual of casting off and embracing cultures. Kawai's minimalist style can test the patience of some, but if you are watching closely, you are hypnotized.

"Subcircle" presented a harrowing space; Niki Cousineau and Gin MacCallum create the allegorical terrains of "Crevice" with two dozen wooden chairs that they arrange, partner, and hurl. Eventually they throw them into a pile and harness them, and they are hoisted above the stage. This is a startling work of surreal stage pictures and subversive imagery. All along, Cousineau and MacCallum, in little-girl-lost dresses and vibrantly colored Prince Valiant wigs, through gesture and posing, show us the scared interior lives of these women. In an unexpectedly beautiful moment, they dig out their suitcases from the pile and as they twirl them around, a tornado of feathers swirl around them. A dreamlike, haunting and brave piece of work.

Next year will be a crucial year for DanceBoom! It should be over its growing pains and experimentations and hone in on its purpose as a collective a-list.

Edited by Lori Ibay

Read more about DanceBoom! in Lewis Whittington's feature, Poison Pens and Pirouettes.

Read related stories published in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.


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