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Performance Showcase 2004

Tight performances in the House of God

by Mary Ellen Hunt

May 21, 2004 -- St. Aidan's Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA

Friday’s eclectic performance of dance by eight different companies at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church marked the third weekend in the church’s inaugural series as an arts venue up in the wind-blown Diamond Heights area of San Francisco.

Overall, I would call the Performance Showcase 2004 one of the more successful shows of this kind, carefully curated by designer Doug Baird, and including several strong pieces by Stephen Pelton and Sara Shelton Mann.

As a space, the newly renovated St. Aidan’s isn’t perfect, but its scalene-angled walls and telescoping spaciousness have the appeal of a non-traditional venue, with a warmth and intimacy that comes from being so close to the dancers that you can feel their movements reverberate through the floor.

The evening’s lighting designer, Matthew Antaky, has also worked wonders with imaginative projections that expand the spatial impression of the performing area and texture the sculptured retable which dominates the sanctuary area.

If there’s a complaint about the venue, it would be the sight-lines -- anyone but those in the front row (out of three rows) would have a hard time seeing anything that wasn’t right in front of them. It reminded me a lot of seeing shows at La MaMa in New York. Still, we stood up against the wall eventually and found that a perfectly acceptable solution.

It’s probably a good thing that most dancers for independent companies are used to rehearsing in a studio the size of someone’s apartment. At St. Aidan’s there was just enough room to squeeze in Sara Shelton Mann’s six sleek dancers for “Eddy.” Still, interestingly enough, the limitations confined the loose, yet edgy movement in just the right way to suggest hip urbanites aching to bust out of their surroundings.

Backed by sepia-toned images of city grit, “Eddy” had a contained urgency underscored by James Kass’ sometimes self-deprecating poetry accompaniment. Kass takes on a host of social issues with alternately rat-tat-tat and laconic lines like “Help! My country has been stolen by nationalist thugs, and all I have is this bad revolution poem.” As someone who lives blocks away from the less than affluent Western Addition area of the city, where a young man was shot within sight of Eddy Street last week, “Eddy” took on a compelling immediacy. In the final moments of the work, a dusky light faded over the dancers who sat -- some implacable, some collapsed -- like a culture riveted into inaction as the music swirled around them. Or perhaps it was in a kind of apathy of disillusionment.

Stephen Pelton’s 1998 “The Hurdy-Gurdy Man” was even more affecting, though delivered with a different definition of containment. Barely moving from the dais area, Pelton drew what he has referred to as a “portrait of evil,” referencing everyone’s favorite embodiment of evil, Adolf Hitler. Set to lieder by Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert, including songs from “Winterreise” sung by Hermann Prey and a desperate recording of Lotte Lehmann singing “An die Musik,” Pelton’s devil accesses a certain ambiguity that sharply contrasts with the stark, almost programmatic movement. And as in “Eddy,” Pelton’s carefully nuanced distillations of motions from film footage of Hitler bring to mind more recent images of military conflict.

On a less political note, abstract works, such as Amy Seiwert’s “Push” excerpt and Kelly Kemp’s “Squint” were presented with a refined professionalism. Alisa Rasera’s “Two Lights,” which AXIS Dance Company premiered on this program, had less of the ebb and flow that wheeled motion often gives to AXIS’ work, while Tara Brandel’s “Love Dances” seemed more appropriate to a college dance showcase, despite a beautiful ocean projection as background from Antaky. Leyya Tawil’s “Le Fee” showed off a strength of quirky movement, as did Natasha Carlitz’ “Swallowtail Summer,” which began promisingly with Sharon Sam encased in a hammock net as if cocooned, but which lost some focus after she emerged.

Nevertheless, as inaugural performances go, the performance showcase turned out to be well-worth the fight through the wind and cold.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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