Reflections on the Dance Critics Assoc. / World Dance Alliance 2013 Conference

On August 29, 2013, the World Dance Alliance – Americas (WDA-A) opened its annual conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. A few days later, on August 1, the Dance Critics Association joined the party, kicking off its own annual gathering, in association with the WDAA. The pas de deux of the two organizations that weekend offered a wealth of casual conversations and curated events, informative panels and inspired performances.

Below are several reflections on the experience: impressions of the joint programming, reviews of the numerous performances, and insights on what dance lovers are talking about this year.

Victoria Farr Brown weighs in at Whim W’Him:

“Just as dance itself is far less strictly divided into classical and modern and popular, and influences from hip hop to aerial dance seep in, so dance-making and writing become ever more intertwined. Blogs of all sorts, education programs that are part of marketing efforts, free-lance reviewing, and specialized websites all enter the mix. Distinctions blur. Roles blend and merge.”

Read the full article here.

Lynn Matluck Brooks weighs in at Thinking Dance:

“With a full schedule of panels, presentations, workshops, classes, and concerts, bringing together dance folks from around the globe, across specialties, and in two organizations (WDA and DCA), this gathering was rich, colorful, generous, and surprisingly relaxed and accommodating.”

Read the full article here.

Becca Weber weighs in at Thinking Dance:

“The conference offered theory next to practice, rather than just the ideological backing behind our work. In doing so, it allowed me to represent my fullest dance “self”—all of the ways in which I engage with the field. I left feeling refreshed, full of inspiration and information.”

Read the full article here.

Sandi Kurtz reviews the WDA-A showcase:

The World Dance Alliance showcase performances during the 2013 conference were just as varied as the participating artists, educators, practitioners, presenters, and other ‘dance people’ involved were. The programs ranged from stage-savvy professionals to young students, with work outside the western canon in between — it’s hard to talk about them all in the same context. But as audience members we saw them all grouped together, whatever their background or expertise, representing the wild variety of the art form.

Choreography in a college setting is a tricky business – it’s as much about creating an appropriate challenge for nascent performers as it is an opportunity to follow an artistic vision. Sometimes those elements combine to make a significant artwork and sometimes they just stay in equilibrium. In the Wednesday night program Marlene Skog and Jin-Wen Yu have both managed to challenge their student dancers without overwhelming them. Skog’s “EXIT/NO EXIT” is an academic exploration of dualism, with its two performers locked in a series of mirror-balanced phrases as they orbit a pair of chairs like a desert island, but their interconnected relationship felt a bit predictable. Unfortunately, the second half of the work was not performed – the weaknesses in the piece may just come from an incomplete view. In “Passage,” Yu matched a sweet-natured contemporary ritual with a score from the Bulgarian State Female Choir – the familiar music reinforced the “girls dancing together” motifs. As her young cast carried stones around the space, balancing them on their foreheads and gathering them into their skirts, they grappled with simple locomotor patterns. The work was most affective when they were dealing directly with their props, using them as percussion instruments or making cairns as they piled them up.

Henry Daniel’s “Here be Dragons-Non Plus Ultra” combines movement, text, acting and animation in a film excerpt from a larger performance work investigating the idea of otherness and exploration. Without seeing the entire project it’s difficult to know if this densely-edited mix of narrative and abstract materials is a sample of the total work, or just one more component. With multiple references and sources, it’s sometimes hard to find an overall arc for the film. “Dragons” incorporates several immigration stories, some starting in the “old world,” and some in the new. We hear from a Chilean artist who has relocated to Catalonia, a Spaniard who now lives in Italy, and a member of an indigenous population from Central America, among others, following both the usurpers and the dispossessed. Movement is just one component of the film project, and the rhythm of the editing has as much kinetic impact as some of the choreography itself. In its complex use of film techniques, “Dragon” is an example of what dance makers can do with university resources.

“Paradox” by Melissa Rolnick and the “Straddling Trio” with Sarah Gamblin, Nina Martin and Andrew Wass were the best examples of professional level performance. “Paradox” is a true old-school modern dance solo, alternating between interior turmoil and external focus. Artists since Isadora Duncan have been examining this emotional landscape –Rolnick has made a nuanced addition to that part of the repertory. Heather Klopchin gave a fully-committed and articulate performance in a work that feels like an homage to an earlier period in dance history, with great attention to details of gesture and timing. “Straddling Trio” also felt like a reference to an earlier time, but it was more attuned to Grand Union and the experiments of the Judson Church community than the early moderns. The performers all have long histories and deep resumes of their own, as well as a genial group dynamic – there was a wealth of experience on stage in their structured improvisation. The work was essentially serious, but laced with some light-hearted moments like penguin-styled waddling and a turn-taking sequence that seemed to take its basic materials from the Hokey Pokey.

Larissa Kern reviews the Saturday, August 3 program:

A black man in denim shorts entered the dark from Upstage Right.  His upper body bent, he articulated through his spine as he walked in circles with turned out feet. He looked half predator, half man as he meandered in silence. When a small clucking noise was heard, his eyes darted as though searching for the source. Soon, he stopped meandering and began to dance– he jumped, he turned, he crawled, he ran. And to every move he brought intensity and passion.  He did not need music to create emotion or power—every one of his moves used his full physical range and communicated to the audience emotions of fear, desperation and loneliness.

In this piece, “Man Alone,” choreographer Chris Walker wanted to portray the often “dangerous realities of urban life.” His choreography and Guy Thorne’s execution brought this vision to life last Saturday night at the Scotia Bank Dance Centre.  In the end Thorne collapsed to the ground, and a down pull of light shone on him as he crawled, panting and tired off the stage.

In his other work of the evening, “South Facing Window,” Walker used dancer Germaul Barnes to dance about the color and metaphors in the Jamaican Flag. He started wearing jeans and a t-shirt that seemed to constrain him, until he stripped to his “underwear” and danced without holding back.  Like Thorne, Barnes showed extreme athleticism with soaring jumps and great expression with flirtatious glances, goofy smiles and emotional reaches.

Claire French’s piece, “Inside In,” also dealt with hardship and survival, but from a different point of view. She used one female dancer, Brenda McLaud, an average size white girl with short brown hair to explore survival as coming from simple discipline. The piece opened with recorded dialogue—people discussing doubt.  Then the lights blacked out, and later the audience could hear a scribbling pencil, playing with writing and thinking, writing and thinking…and dancing. McLaud clearly had a strong foundation as she executed off balance extensions and deep lunges with straight legs. French’s choreography went beyond surviving external hardships and explored how people survive the everyday, internal battles caused by doubt.

The evening’s performance also exhibited subtle humor, live music, role reversal, and recorded comedy. All the dancers demonstrated strength and flexibility, and all the choreographers displayed insight and ingenuity, but these three solos provided the best entertainment, revealed the most insight and most appropriately delivered their message.

Janet Smith reviews the Thursday, August 1 program:

Fresh hybrids of the traditional and contemporary and some deeply political dance stood out at the WDA-A’s August 1st mixed program.

The six-show bill opened with B.C.’s Git Hayetsk First Nations troupe performing a piece on a theatre stage for the first time; the group is more often seen at festivals and other outdoor events. In Ridicule, the company used the traditional mask dancing of its ancestors to address pressing issues of today–namely the way the Canadian and U.S. governments’ rules for “status Indians” go against ancient clan and family lines.

The piece began with a voice-over explicating why these laws are offensive, but the message was much more powerful when the company went beyond speech and into its rhythmic, earth-bound mask-dancing.

The artful symbolism included giant masks that were divided into quadrants–painted faces sectioned out with blocks of bureaucratic status forms. The dancers wore plain, black robes, metaphorically stripped of the intricate regalia that Northwest Coastal people use to identify themselves with their tribes. By the piece’s end, the performers from a multitude of nations had emerged in this pageantry, complete with button blankets, wide-brimmed spruce hats, and clothing emblazoned with the spirit creatures of peoples like the Haida, Tsimshian, Nisga’a’, and Gitxan.

This first foray showed the largely unexplored potential for such a strong traditional form to move into contemporary times. Here’s hoping the group will build on its strengths–its multidisciplinary array of live drumming and visual art, its pulsing choreography, and its passionate politics–to develop the idea further.

Toronto’s Ashima Suri, too, puts a new twist on an old ethnic form–but in the case of her Ashes, the ancient source, classical South Asian dance, is far less recognizable.

The young dancer and social activist has branded what she does Indo-contemporary dance, and she turns to the gesticulating fingers and emphasized facial expressions that barat natyam and other traditional forms use to tell stories.

But where Suri really gets subversive is in using those techniques to defy her culture: she’s interested in challenging the notion that people, especially women, should hide their emotions and put on a happy “Bollywood” face. In this solo, Suri contemplates a canvas portrait of herself and spirals into moments of grief, loneliness, and melancholy. At first she tries to put on a front, waving and smiling, then recoils again and again, slumping into sadness. Her extended, impossibly expressive fingers might convulse in the air, pound at her chest, or pull an invisible partner to her body.

Moving to sobbing strings on a stage set starkly with chairs and a disembodied wall hung with an empty frame, she is a magnetic performer with an ability to pull out deep emotion–emotion that risks bringing judgment within her own community. Like the Git Hayetsk work, it’s a dance hybrid that you’ve never quite seen before–and you can feel the beginnings of something new here. There’s no denying Suri finds intensity through her face and hands in this deeply personal and fearless work, but one yearns for it to push into more full-bodied, fully realized territory.

Erin Scheiwe Rockwell’s lighter but equally heartfelt portrait Key Notes was a solo that really did use the whole body to explore the inner life of a woman. Dressed in a formal pink gown, the Jackson, Missippi, dance instructor sat down at a piano to play, then moved away from the keys to explore the frantic, impassioned energy that runs behind the serene composure expected of a classical pianist. To George Winston’s melodious notes, she might close her eyes and play the percussive notes in the air, or roll to loll her head against the top rim of the piano. The piece was as much an ode to the music–you could see the notes ripple through Rockwell’s core–as it was to a musician. Key Notes could dig deeper, but it was a fluid, playful first etude into the subject.

Much more intense was an excerpt from Chicago-based Seldoms Dance Company’s Monument, a refreshingly nonliteral take on our endless consumption and destruction of the environment. Carrie Hanson’s piece is supposedly inspired by human-made “monuments” like New York’s giant Fresh Kills Landfill trash heap–but that wasn’t immediately obvious from the duet shown. Instead, two entwined bodies thrust themselves into a cycle of abstracted collecting and discarding. In one repeated phrase, the dancers determinedly wiped at the bottom of their feet, as if their soles were covered in the shards and detritus of what humankind has cast to the ground. At others, they seemed to gather ever more from the air into their outstretched t-shirts. The piece found a driving flow all its own, with magnetic, committed performances from Damon Green and Christina Gonzalez-Gillett. Smart, kinetic, and thought-provoking.

True to their titles, Flight Dreams and Hailey’s Albedo shot for a different plane entirely. Georgia choreographer Bala Sarasvati uses aerial hoops, more often seen in new circus, for a form of contemporary dance that reaches for cosmic and almost spiritual heights.

Two performers, HyeYoung Borden and Emi Murata, whirled and flew across the stage in dizzying combinations. They were set against a swirling video of the skies and starry universe projected on a huge screen behind them—an effect that was by turns hypnotic, gaudy, and distracting.

What makes this dance, more than acrobatics, is that Sarasvati is trying to find higher meaning and push the movement aesthetically instead of simply displaying tricks. The work successfully takes you to a mesmerizing, almost transcendent space–especially in an intimate space, versus a circus-style arena.

You could call it an uplifting end to a program that launched a lot of new ideas.

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