December 6 and 7, 2014
By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.*

Mini-scripts by the choreographers for the program at the Joy of Motion Dance Project in D.C.’s Friendship Heights (bordering on the Maryland state line) highlight the beneficence and anomalies of being fully human and predominantly female. Ballet is fused with contemporary dance genres to illustrate the individual and collective life canvas. Twelve choreographers’ visions are depicted both dramatically and subtly in the evening’s nine works, three of them collaborative. Take the contrasting works of soloist Briana Stuart and the duo of Sylvana Christopher and Olivia Goldberg, for example.

Stuart’s seizing of the platform to herald black women as “wonderful: beautiful, strong and resilient”, buttressed throughout by the recorded spoken narrative of Marty and Slick, doubles as a docudance concerning the struggle of black women for self-identity. Stuart alternately walks, hits the floor, rolls and flails her arms hyper-athletically. She also allows her body to descend into a difficult, perfectly balanced arabesque with bent-knee standing leg, showing a grasp of rigorous ballet technique.
In Glade Dance’s “Apple of My Eye” – where ballet and jazz meet the contemporary genre – Christopher and Goldberg continually vie for attention and focus in their relationship as friends or lovers (the gender roles aren’t that crucial). At times wrapping themselves around each other, they ultimately separate. Christopher watches incredulously from her floor-bound pose while Goldberg stomps offstage. It’s wistful and reflective, if all too brief.

Choreographers and dancers Eleni Grove and Martini Phillips in “Excerpts from Blue Mountain Express” reveal a comic side to friendship that transits from boredom to mild confrontation via crossed legs, the switching of chairs and opposing moves. Plucked strings in the jazzy bluegrass score complement the shenanigans of the pair, yet they revert to wholesale contentment.

“Starved”opts for the provocative. For openers, choreographer Candra Eglin startles us with a space sculpture that evokes an upside-down praying mantis. It’s a pose to which her dancers (a duo plus one comprised of Margaret Allen, Emilia Burke and Shelley Siller) return at the end. Eglin persuades us that they are “emotionally starved through the ebb and flow of a damaged relationship”.

Choreographer Sara Herrera of Aras Dance and choreographer/dancer Ashley Cuppett of Nomadic Artist are more illusive in their messages about humanity and personhood. Is it due to the reliance on props in Herrera’s “Embrace”? Her movers (Xavaire Bolton and Erin Massie minus the injured Rachel Turner) step in and out of gigantic frames that initially look like mirrors but soon become metaphors for something life-changing. Disparate styles of the dancers jar our sensibilities and make us wonder about the outcome. Ironically, this may accord with the very notions of “self-criticism” and uncertainty as to the identity of the “real enemy” that Herrera explores.

Viable components and atmospherics in “Buried Influence” by choreographer Cuppett are lacking. Despite some sleek grand ronds de jambe en l’air, most of the steps are dips and stretches executed erratically and contrary to the choreographer’s prescription that her dancers move in unison. Cuppett needs to expand her technical vocabulary and refine her staging choices in order to effectively communicate an idea or narrative. We can’t discern her notion that a “footprint” is imposed on “every . . . soul we encounter”.

Two works depart from Dance Project’s apparent theme of female and personal discovery. “A Bowler Hat Kinda Night” by choreographer and dancer Jennifer Seye of Full Circle Dance Company romps lightheartedly through the Broadway jazz genre. Seye features six women in three pairs adorned in spangly pants and black jackets. Bobbling heads laced with facial contortions are key. Mostly a unison affair, the piece breezes by too quickly.

“La Milonguera (The Tango Dancer)” by choreographers Lindsey Doyle and Erica Pincus of Classical Repertory Dance Ensemble mounts Joy’s only pointe offering, utilizing a large cast of nine women. Notable are partnered attitude turns, especially striking when adapted to the style of Argentine “milonga”. Backless russet costumes and the introduction of the evening’s sole male dancer (Luis Ramirez) sweeten this fusion of classical ballet and tango.

The audience favorite, determined by ballots cast on both nights, turned out to be “The Glass Hour” by choreographer Alexandra Schools. Syncopated music and movement – elbows cranked at angles and feet flexed, then pointed – immediately distinguish the mood of this piece. At a climactic moment, one woman strides slowly upstage (to the back) at dead center while the others catapult past her in opposite directions. Skillful counterpoint and staging, most assuredly. Ensemble work by Clare Alrich, Ariana Barth, Sara Herrera, Kristin King and Ann Westlake is virtually flawless. And, props never clutter the choreography. The dancers just extinguish the lights in hourglasses that line the left-to-right axis downstage as the piece concludes. In myriad ways, Schools deftly exhibits her thesis that one can become “suddenly isolated in a fast-paced world”.

Joy of Motion’s promotion of both established and emerging choreographers and endorsement of a thematic approach to programming, as seen in the mini-scripts, attests to the value of weaving a pithy tale with dance or “saying something” rather than merely abstracting. Change of pace from the uber-intellectual aura of post-modern dance! As Joy’s family, friends and fans, our New Year’s wish is for an unveiling of more Dance Projects with such a potent “IV”. That’s the abbreviation I just created for “innovation and verve”.

Copyright © 2014 by Luella Christopher,*author of Pirouettes with Bayonets: Classical Ballet Metamorphosed as Dance-Drama and Its Usage in the People’s Republic of China as a Tool of Political Socialization, Ph.D. dissertation, The School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C., 1979 (archived at University of Michigan).