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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
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!
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
Edited by Lori Ibay
Read more about DanceBoom!
in Lewis Whittington's feature, Poison
Pens and Pirouettes.
stories published in the press and see what others are saying. Click here.