DancEthos at Dance Place by Luella Christopher

By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
Copyright  ©  2014
July 26-27, 2014

A kaleidoscope of choreographic riches came to Dance Place on a sizzling hot weekend with Tiffany Haughn’s versatile four year-old company DancEthos. Sharing the choreographic spotlight in a gala-like setting were works by Haughn, Carolyn Kamrath, Gabriella Campagna, Tina Fratello and Elizabeth Odell Catlett, as well as guest artists Sylvana Christopher and Althea Skinner. It seems fitting to recognize the unique contributions of each one.

TABLEAUX AND PATTERNS: “But the beginning of things”, a world premiere by Carolyn Kamrath (to music of Nunaf Rayani and Mark T. Smith) highlights patterns and conveys them not only with the bodies of her dancers but with her choice of lighting. On and off, on and off – the lights function almost like funnels on a subway track. Each time the lights come up, Kamrath’s dancers are pinpointed in new or alternating configurations. This happens about five times at the beginning of her piece until soloist Rick Westerkamp veers away from the group. The five dancers finally stand in unison to a fully lit stage, then all break into jumps and turns alternated with crouches, plus a few spread-eagle style floor splits and rolls. Westerkamp’s moves become more frenzied in a duet with a woman who follows his lead, but they don’t seem to be connecting. Briefly, all five occupy the stage again. Développés fold into turns and extensions, often with upturned heads and slants away from the working leg. Movements could easily have become convulsive, but Kamrath prefers moving tableaux. She finishes the work with a stylized body-croquet for two women and one man.

“tête-à-tête” (2011) by Tiffany Haughn (to music of Coheed and Cambria, arranged by James McMillen). Recalling a similar tableau in Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations”, the piece opens with four dancers in a diamond pattern. Facing front, they are crouching in unison, heads to the floor and arms outstretched. The action shifts briefly to two men, two women. Robotic arms are followed by a single-file freeze of all the dancers in “running-man” poses. Another tableau, this one linear. They pair off, followed by rolls over and around each other. Windmill arms are crossed low over the front of the body. They pair off again, women versus men.

HUMOR. Gabrielle Campagna for “Semigloss” (2011), a work in which paint cans become a metaphor for frustration and even revenge. Set to French torch songs and tango music, the work for three dancers features Jenny T. Flemingloss (the piece could well be an unintended riff on her name), Carolyn Kamrath and Donnie Walker. It starts innocently enough with a spotlit woman in an upward diagonal extension. Then the first – thankfully, sealed – paint can is lobbed onstage at her. Walker hauls the woman offstage; she remains in the lift. The three occupy the space together; at this point; they seem to be friends. As the songs morph to tango, paint cans are thrown around again on the floor, then from one dancer to the other. One paint can even gets stuck on a dancer’s foot. Clever but never kitschy.

Carolyn Kamrath’s “Breathe, Shift, Repeat” (2010). The piece (set to the soulful music of Rising Appalachia” Leah and Chloe Smith) features soloist Vanessa Rowan who is joined by four more dancers (three women, one man in the back). Rowan seems isolated from the others, as emphasized by the continuous vocal refrain of “it’s nobody’s fault but me”. The dancers line up, shrugging their shoulders back and forth as if pondering whether the inclusion of this outsider is worth the effort. Turning leg sweeps from the floor accentuate their indecision. Kamrath even enlists her dancers’ wrists in expressing their uncertainty. All four women form an upstage tableau as they now try to include Rowan among them. Bodies are partially torqued, peppered by finger snaps and scoops. Percussive objects sounding like buckets and cousins of triangles or xylophones give the choreography a heightened zest. As in her world premiere, Kamrath likes to move her subgroups in unison, though she does utilize graduated poses. The piece ends with backs of the dancers to the audience in a straight line, shoulders at right angles with forearms and jacked at the elbow.

PROJECTIONS OR LIGHTING AND SYNTHESIS WITH CHOREOGRAPHY. Guest artists Sylvana Christopher and Althea Skinner for “Actions speak louder” (2014). The work (set to music of Ramtin Arablouei with contributions from Drop Electric), features an outsize backdrop of video projections by Desirée Bayonet with time-lapse still photography by Maggie Picard. The images are glorious: landscape, a bin of clementines, bees, flowers, bridge, statue, freeway, dam, lake. They enhance the choreography by Christopher and Skinner, who harness counterpoint to juxtapose slow movements with fast, syncopated vocal singing supported by drum ensemble and convey wry moments. One woman peels a fruit, the other reaches for a piece of it, and the first woman shoves a chunk in the second one’s mouth. In another interchange, fingers are wiggled near the ears as if to tell the other to stop talking so much. Still other gestures accommodate each other, such as shared whispers, the rubbing of hands over hearts and a series of alternating lifts. The duet ends in a pose backed by a giant projection of the smiling Skinner and Christopher (whom her mom didn’t even recognize).

Elizabeth Odell Catlett’s “Sift” (2011). The piece (to music of Yann Tiersen) opens with five women in dark purple soft tulle skirts over black biker shorts and tank tops. The five are arrayed in silhouette fashion before a stunning blue-green background. Theater and technical director Ben Levine is so adept at “gobos” (devices that produce patterns of light and shadow) that he virtually becomes an ex officio choreographer. With shrugging shoulders, the work emerges as chiefly a unison affair. The lighting shifts to purple, once again boldly outlining the dancers as silhouettes on a horizontal line. Variations on a basic pas de cheval, “sparkle” arms and hands alternated with swoops and swirls, a back hitchkick or cabriole by one on the backs of the other four (lined up on a diagonal) all give this work the most balletic feel of the evening’s works. It’s a sweet treat that ends too quickly.

PROPS. “Convergence” (premiere) by Tiffany Haughn (to music of Olafur Arnald and Arvo Part). Two female dancers, Jenny T. Flemingloss and Carolyn Kamrath, are situated at opposite corners of the stage on a diagonal, each one in a circle of light. A
three-legged bench figures prominently in the middle of the stage. The two dancers move in opposition without looking at one another. They finally move toward one another on the bench and lean slightly on each other’s shoulders. In a highly dramatic moment, one dancer up-ends the bench; the other climbs up its rungs. Now the bench is configured vertically toward downstage. The two dancers make still more contact, each briefly hiding under the bench but moving cooperatively with the other. They reach – touching and showing empathy with simple tilts of their heads toward each other. It seems as though they are “mirroring”. Then one grabs the waist of the other who is standing above her. Slow rolls spill off and in and around the bench when it is upside-down. The dancers separate again at opposite ends of the diagonal but mount the bench, grasp each other’s arms for the final time and jump down onto the floor. The bench is central to the piece but never lapses into gimmickry.

“Square Root of My Heart” (2009) by Tina Fratello (to music of Sia Furler and Daniel DeMussenden Carrey). Occupying the solo role in her own work, Fratello is seated center stage in a swivel chair – a singular prop. She dances around the chair, climbs up on it, even embraces it, possibly sparring with a friend/colleague/employer. She pushes the chair toward stage right, then stage left. Finally, she swings around in a circle while seated in the chair; shoves it offstage and then walks away from it.

DRAMA. “The In Between” (2012) by Tiffany Haughn (to music of Patrick Laird and Ivan Trevino, especially cello, which figures prominently in several sections). Haughn’s heart is deeply implanted in the piece; it derives from the experience of a cancer patient played by Carolyn Kamrath. The young woman occupies the border between the earthly and the invisible with its constantly shifting demands and priorities. Emotions are palpable in this unusually large ensemble of eleven dancers who execute runs, pauses and circles with a spotlight on Kamrath in the center.
The patient moves in opposition to the more frenzied activity around her; all others exit. A stark rectangular block of light accentuates the passage to later phases of this young woman’s struggle. She dips, extends, lunges; two men swivel her around. Now the closely knit group moves slowly while she becomes the frenzied one as the emotional counterpoint shifts. The patient is literally carried through the ordeal by her friends and associates, adroitly depicted by her “bicycle legs” when lofted on the shoulders of others.
A particular high point (again to solo cello) finds the patient in a split-duet with two different women, one after the other. The first of her two partners could be a friend or relative. She exits and a second partner emerges from the wings to continue the duet. This character is decidedly more authoritative (perhaps a doctor?). It’s portrayed by Colleen Hutchings, a superbly centered and graceful dancer. The simple positioning of Hutchings’ face and chin relative to her shoulders serves to further distinguish this interlude as one of the evening’s most theatrical and beautifully executed moments.
As the lights come up, everyone on stage is now taking steps forward and back.
They turn to face each other but seem disconnected. Have they changed places with the patient and once again become the fearful ones? An impressive series of unison turns, extensions, falls and rolls ensues. The patient thanks each of the others along a diagonal. Is it a goodbye or a chance to recognize the support she has received? Haughn leaves us wondering. Practically in the laps of the audience, Kamrath is stripped down to her undergarments and once again borne aloft. Haughn succeeds in delivering the story of this young woman and with this ambitious work brings the DancEthos “gala” to a stunning conclusion.

Drama was also prominent in Carolyn Kamrath’s “Breathe.Shift.Repeat” as well as Sylvana Christopher and Althena Skinner’s “Actions speak louder”. All in all, a meritorious evening of both whimsy and pathos.

*Copyright © 2014 by Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
Published by IsItModern?