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Liss Fain Dance
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Author:  balletomaniac [ Sun Mar 10, 2013 9:59 am ]
Post subject:  Liss Fain Dance

Liss Fain Dance
Powerhouse Arena
Brooklyn, New York

March 7, 2013
The Water is Clear and Still

-- by Jerry Hochman

Liss Fain Dance, a San Francisco-based contemporary dance company, gave two performances of Ms. Fain’s The Water is Clear and Still at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena on March 7 and 8. The program lasted an hour, and I left feeling disappointed – I wanted to see more.

One view of a company, and one performance consisting of one piece which itself is restricted by the ‘installation’ nature of the work and its limited concept, may not provide sufficient basis on which to describe a choreographer’s style and a small company’s overall proficiency. But given these limitations, this viewer found Liss Fain Dance to be an engaging group of dancers, fueled by equally engaging choreography crafted by Ms. Fain (purportedly in artistic collaboration with her dancers and other members of the company’s creative staff), which itself was inspired by an equally engaging word-score created by renowned author Jamaica Kincaid (published in Ms. Kincaid's collection of short stories: “At the Bottom of the River”). The Water is Clear and Still is a lovely piece to watch.

Based on this piece, Ms. Fain’s style appears to be a fusion of ballet sensitivity and contemporary application. It is danced barefoot, but it includes (and is dominated by) lyrical movement quality incorporating balletic positions, fluidity and sense of lightness (more reaching out than pulling in), with contemporary physicality and energy accompanying occasional angular movement, thrusts and contractions, creating an atmosphere of natural, rough-edged precision. Translated, that means it’s hard to describe just by the steps and positions alone. The movement quality is warm and accessible, rather than distant and mechanical, and very easy to like. It is also, at least as limited by the confines of this piece, very circular. That is, the movement generally appears to turn on its axis as sections of the piece unfold. This adds to the piece’s sense of inviting the audience in – as if captured by the piece’s centrifugal energy. Again based solely on this piece, Ms. Fain’s choreographic vocabulary seems limited – but she effectively camouflages this limitation by shuffling and reshuffling the basic positions through the use of different combinations and sequencing, and by taking advantage of the different viewpoints that the piece allows.

The Water is Clear and Still is a work designed as a performance installation. That is, although the choreography and basic staging is ‘set’, its performing area is modified by the size and nature of available space. At the Powerhouse Arena – a large, square-shaped performing area with sky-high ceilings and built-in amphitheater/style seating on one end, surrounded by tables laden with books (the place is a bookstore and the books on the tables are for sale during normal operating hours) – the performing space was dominated by two large floor-to-ceiling pillars, which had to be accommodated in locating the piece-specific sets. The performing area of the concrete floor was covered by a dance floor, and sets consisting of metallic ‘trees’ (a couple with steps leading up to a landing, as if converting the tree to a balcony or porch) were installed at various locations that manage, to the extent possible, to avoid the pillars but also to integrate them, somewhat, into the set. The result is a performing area broken up into three basic small spaces (clearings among the ‘trees’).

The audience is invited to surround the performing area, and to move around the perimeters of the space at will, but not to interact. The result was not what I had anticipated – although of course the audience can be within inches of them, and is able to physically follow the action or move to a better viewpoint, I still felt an emotional separation from the dancers much like a fourth wall, albeit a fluid one.

The piece opens with dancers in the main central section stridently striking their chests with their hands as if to say ‘this is about me’ (a visual theme frequently repeated in the course of the piece) as a narrator, Val Sinckler, costumed like a Caribbean islander (Ms. Kincaid's place of birth and early upbringing were in Antigua), vocally presents Ms. Kincaid’s words. I use the term ‘vocally presents’ advisedly – Ms. Sinckler doesn’t just speak the words, she acts them with her voice, accompanied by limited face and hand gestures, as she walks through, stops at, and continues walking around the set. Although she doesn’t dance, Ms. Sinckler’s voice, the voice of Ms. Kincaid, is one of two primary ‘voices’ in the piece. With her effectively nuanced delivery and presence, Ms. Sinckler is marvelous.

Ms. Kincaid’s words are a framework for something larger than just dancing to words. While Ms. Sinckler speaks, the dancers move, emotionally, to the words. But this viewer rarely saw a clear connection between the dance movement and Ms. Kincaid’s words (except for a wonderful sequence accompanying Ms. Sinckler’s recitation of Ms. Kincaid’s recollection of her dominating mother’s warnings and instructions – explicitly verbal or piercingly implicit – to her daughter). That’s a good thing. Had the movement been merely a literal translation from Ms. Kincaid (via Ms. Sinckler) to the dancers (via Ms. Fain), it would have been a more limited, less interesting, performance. While it does not tell a story directly, the choreography, the other 'voice' of the piece, amplifies the emotions inherent in Ms. Kincaid’s words through movement. Indeed, this viewer found the best parts of The Water is Clear and Still to be the movement sequences spaced between, and independent of, Ms. Kincaid’s words. With no simultaneous narrative, there was nothing to influence the audience’s connection with Ms. Fain’s choreography and the dancers’ execution other than the wordless emotional curents that Ms. Kincaid’s words had generated.

Ms. Fain has staged the piece optimally. The action takes place in each of the three ‘clearings’ (although at times one or another clearing is choreographically silent); sometimes the dancers in each space move in different ways from the dancers in another clearing; sometimes they move in concurrent patterns; sometimes they seem to overlap or move sequentially, and they all move from clearing to clearing fluidly, at times joining one of the other groups, at times changing partners. The process makes the entire piece a source of action and interest as if the dancers were responding to emotional currents and then ‘settle’ in different performing areas like water borne pebbles that move from place to place by the ebb and flow of a river and settle in different spots when the water calms – with the calm energy of the current creating the illusion that the pebbles are still moving.

Each of the dancers – Jeremiah Crank, Katherine Hawthorne, Megan Kurashige, Shannon Kurashige, Alec Lytton, and Carson Stein (in alphabetical order, as listed in the program), gave a commendable performance, and it would be inappropriate to single out one over another. It should be noted that the dancers are each completely different sizes and types (tall, short, shorter; athletic, thin, thinner), which by itself adds a measure of texture to the performance. The clay-colored tunic costumes (with rust colored pants for the men)– simple but perfectly appropriate, were designed and executed by Mary Domenico; the installation and lighting (wonderfully serene) were designed by Matthew Antaky, and Frederic O. Boulay handled the projection design and was the overall Production Manager. The music that accompanied Ms. Fain’s choreography throughout the piece had a variety of origins, from an enhancing but unobtrusive commissioned score by Dan Wool, to Franz Shubert’s “String Quintet 956,” to “Inventor Rutili” (performed by Anonymous Four). [I’m not a music scholar, but the Anonymous Four recording of “Inventor Rutili” that I located is a composition by John Tavener (‘Hymn for the New Light’), which I suspect is Mr. Tavener’s adaptation of a Gregorian chant of the same name, subtitled ‘Hymn for the Lighting of the Easter Fire.’] The disparate elements all flowed together smoothly and beautifully.

According to the program notes, Liss Fain Dance has performed nationally and internationally, from California to Jacobs Pillow to Poland and Russia and points in between, since it was formed in 1988 in Boston, and has presented pieces (including 45 pieces choreographed by Ms. Fain)that use proscenium stages and performance installations. Its home performance spaces are the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Z Space in San Francisco. I saw no reference in the program notes to prior New York performances, which may explain why, for this viewer, the only disappointing aspect of Liss Fain Dance’s performance was that it was of only one piece, which was only danced twice. I look forward to its return to the New York area – even if it must leave its heart in San Francisco.

Author:  balletomaniac [ Wed Jan 20, 2016 1:18 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Liss Fain Dance

Liss Fain Dance
3LD Art & Technology Center
New York, New York

January 16, 2016
The Imperfect Is Our Paradise

-- by Jerry Hochman

Liss Fain Dance, a San Francisco-based company that last appeared in New York nearly three years ago, returned last Wednesday, for a six performance run at the 3LD (Three-Legged Dog) Art & Technology Center.

Even though the theater is in lower Manhattan, it’s easy to get lost trying to find it, and even easier to succumb to a maze of detours if you navigate the city streets by car. The installation program that LFD presented, The Imperfect is Our Paradise, is similar – it’s easy to get lost or sidetracked by distractions that initially appear unclear or superfluous. But the heart of this production is its choreography and its dancers, and the dancing was transcendent. That The Imperfect Is Our Paradise as a whole not only works, but soars, is a tribute to Fain’s choreography and her dancers’ capability.

On the surface, and aside from the choreography and the dancers’ execution, nothing works quite as well in this production as in the installation piece that LFD presented in New York previously, The Water Is Clear and Still, in which the text was delivered live with passion and dignity, and the piece seemed to change from viewing angle to viewing angle as the dancers and the audience traversed and almost blended into the expansive and irregularly shaped set.

Here, none of the collaborative input seemed to gel. The text, from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, is presented in a taped reading by Jonathan Siegel and delivered in a languid and emotionless (though not inappropriate) drawl. And instead of enabling the audience to feel that it’s a part of the action, the presentation here is more akin to ‘theater in the round’: the audience can indeed move around the stage-floor perimeter and see the choreography and dancers from different viewpoints, but there’s no sense of relatively discrete performing spaces with which the audience can intersect. It’s nice to be able to stand close to the dancers and not be confined to a chair, but here the audience is always on the outside looking in. More significantly, the multimedia accompaniment – different images (a ‘cosmic’ sky; a country barn and surrounding land, a forest of trees, vertical lines that looked like prison bars, part of a weathered brick wall) projected sequentially on multiple bedsheet-like ‘flags’ that hang from the ceiling around the stage’s perimeter -- amounts to little more than a fractured scrim almost hidden from the audience’s view relatively high above the stage floor. When I first noticed it, I kept looking up to see if and when the projections changed. Fortunately, the dancing was compelling enough to draw my interest back to the stage.

But even though these collaborative components don’t work very well, they provide the essential atmospheric framework for the dance, and the dance illuminates the text. If you allow the somewhat depressing sound of the text and visual feel of the projections to filter through you like a humid summer day, the potential for distraction evaporates.

Faulkner’s text is a brilliant but meandering and weary description of his character’s thoughts and feelings and growth over time. The relationships and events that dominate his (or her) life are critically important when they happen, but ultimately, so the title of the novel would imply, they amount to sound and fury signifying nothing.

Fain takes the Faulkner text and sensibility to a different level and turns the novel’s title – and its connection to Shakespeare – on its head (which may reflect Faulkner’s real intent), adding not so much a touch of optimism as an observation that events as they happen, as they are lived and dreamed, are full of hope and purposelessness, optimism and despair – but they’re the building blocks of a life (aha! the multimedia bricks!). Imperfect though it may be, this imperfection is itself meaningful, vital and indispensable – the essential truth in the Wallace Stevens poem, The Poems of Our Climate, a line from which provides the dance’s title.

The piece’s success is not because it’s particularly innovative, but because it’s moving. From the opening moments, naturally and without ceremony, Fain filters the Faulkner text into relatively discrete episodes which seamlessly segue from one to another, each of which amplify the atmospheric emotions. Not one of these episodes is a throwaway - the solos, pairs, and group dances that usually begins on an edge and flow into the middle of the stage and then off are vividly representative of a panoply of emotions that run the gamut from anomie to affection to anger and frustration.

Fain’s choreographic style is predominantly a lyrical movement quality incorporating a sense of weight but at the same time a sense of buoyancy. While there’s a fair share of angularity and aggression, fluidity dominates the movement’s visual sense. Somehow, even though the piece is structured in a collection of bits and pieces, some vigorous, some introspective, some vaguely romantic, some reactive, the movement quality is warm and accessible even when it appears frantic, and it invites the viewer in – not just to watch it, but to experience it.

The dancers are largely identical to the cast of The Water is Still and Clear – a sign not only of relative stability, but consistency. Jeremiah Crank, the company’s senior dancer (he’s been with LFD since 2007), is the reflective, contemplative, and emotionally detached individual who watches (and at times sees himself in) events that the choreography brings to life and other dancers enact. Katherine Hawthorne’s emotional character is more distant than Crank’s. Tall and somewhat hard-edged, her performance quality (reflecting the choreography assigned to her) is less contemplative but more agitated; she slices her arms, legs and body through the air like a knife through butter. And Hawthorne executed the most memorable choreographic sequence in the piece (chaine turns with alternating raised and lowered arms in rapid sequence) with the skill and insouciance of a ballet dancer trained in Cunningham technique, which is her background. On the other hand, Shannon Kurashige and Megan Kurashige (sisters who also collaborate and choreograph under the name Sharp & Fine) not only excelled in their partnered and group dancing, but delivered gut-wrenching, almost violent solos as they fought life’s slings and arrows. Aidan DeYoung and Sarah Dionne Woods, the company’s newest dancers, had less to do but what they did they did well. Woods in particular, who joined the company only a month ago, delivered crystalline execution and emotional intensity where the choreography calls for it, and has a stage quality of quiet but simmering contemplation, always absorbed in the action even when standing still.

In my review of LFD’s performance of The Water Is Clear and Still, I stated up front that I was disappointed when the piece ended – not because it was deficient, but because I wanted to see more. I felt the same way as I exited 3LD Theater to cope with the traffic maze. Two performances; two successes – albeit three years apart. Liss Fain Dance should be persuaded to travel to New York more frequently.

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