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Battleworks Dance Company and Naomi Goldberg Haas
Dances for a Variable Population

Downtown Dance Festival

by Elizabeth McPherson

August 20, 2008 -- Chase Plaza, New York City

From August 16-24, over thirty dance companies performed in three downtown New York City locations as part of the Downtown Dance Festival 2008. Now in its 27th year, the festival was established and is still organized by Battery Dance Company, directed by Jonathan Hollander. Highlights of the program on Wednesday, August 20 were the performances by Battleworks Dance Company and Naomi Goldberg Haas/Dances for a Variable Population.

Marlena Wolfe of Battleworks Dance Company performed “Ella” (2007) by company director Robert Battle. To scatting by Ella Fitzgerald, Wolfe jiggled, jerked, and gyrated in a full-body scat. The choreography was intense and dense, carefully structured and then performed with the immediacy of an improvisation. Much as Fitzgerald’s singing does, Wolfe made a statement for strength and vulnerability going hand in hand through her tough yet emotional performance in her black suit worn over a black bra (with no shirt). Wolfe’s expressive face at times seemed to indicate that her body was moving in response to the music but outside her own control. The sudden, no-preparation throws (not falls) to the floor were a surprise to the audience and seemingly to Wolfe as well. The fast-paced dance ended with a flat body freefall backwards to the floor, a fitting ending to a wildly energetic solo.

Naomi Goldberg Haas/Dances for a Variable Population is, as the name indicates, a company defined by the diversity of its members. In program notes, the company is described as making “concert dances with professional dancers and diverse populations ranging from children who thought dance was only on MTV, to persons with disabilities who thought dance was denied them, to seniors who thought dance was beyond them.” In the dance shown at this performance, “Street. Straight. Mambo. Disco.,” Haas worked with what each diverse dancer does well in terms of movement. She seemed to be saying that we each have a personal voice that can be expressed through dance. She paired dancers of differing abilities with the partnering and support between them indicating mutual trust. A particularly eye-catching section was the Mambo, a trio with Haas as the central dancer. The three seemed to be having a ball as they moved together and apart with body isolations and a spunky camaraderie.

The event concluded with Haas directing an audience participation dance, extending her theme that dance is for everybody to a hands-on expressive experience. People of all ages, from 3-80, stepped up to the stage and joined in the fun. After a warm-up of bounces, bends, stretches, and lunges, Haas directed the participants to move from the upstage corners on the diagonal to the downstage corners. From chassés to runs, the audience and company members moved in continuous crossing lines. (It was a quick lesson in choreography and dance teaching for all ages.)

The final activity was a shape exercise in which participants were asked to make a body shape one at a time, each connecting or relating in some way to one before. The second time through, Haas asked simply that the participants add an unspoken storyline. The first group shape evolved as a family scene, and the second as a physical representation of the “I’m a Little Teapot” song. Although this may sound superficial, there was a warmth and community shared onstage that is where the fundamental spirit of dance lies. Dance is communal and expressive. It should not be an isolating experience. Dance is for everyone to watch and to do. Haas’ message came through loud and clear.

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