CORNUCOPIA OF INNOVATIVE CHOREOGRAPHY: FROM THE ABSTRACT AND CONTEMPLATIVE TO THE DARING AND WHIMSICAL
DancEthos with Deviated Theatre
Cultural Arts Center, Montgomery College
Silver Spring, Maryland
May 22, 2016
By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
In an afternoon of choreography as full and wide-ranging as that of DanceEthos with Deviated Theatre presented recently, it is certainly idiosyncratic to highlight favorites. However, the linear and vertical look of the seven-member ensemble in DancEthos’ world premiere of “Eleanora” resounds with distinction, as does the choice of music by Philip Glass (“The Hours”). Runs are interspersed with sweeping turns of the leg. Lines move up and down, back and forth and between each other.
The monotonic ensemble achieved by guest choreographer Gabrielle Campagna, undergirded by black on white costumes, capitalizes on the serialism of composer Glass and transforms repetitive dance movements from cliché to the higher realm of intrigue and fascination. DancEthos bills the piece by Campagna as a tribute to a friend who took her life. However, as a dance that “sheds light on the “heartache and isolation of mental illness”, the choreographer’s intention is not readily apparent or even necessary to leave the viewer with recollections of sparse movement and stark images.
Another standout of the evening is Deviated Theatre’s “siGHt”, excerpted from an original dance-opera by Kimmie Dobbs Chan and Enoch Chan initially commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. It depicts the aftermath of a funeral in which a mourner (Kimmie Dobbs Chan) is surrounded by memories. While seated on her partner’s empty chair, an unseen ghost (Lauren Marsden) jostles with memories divined by the survivor, taking her through grief and accelerating tension.
At times plodding, at others almost acrobatic, seven dancers in filmy handkerchief skirts stand in first position. Two dancers break away to wrap themselves over folding chairs, making geometric shapes with their legs. Slow prances by dancers whose heads lean forward, their hair untied and hanging low, unmistakably evoke the world of spirits. Breaths become a chorus of whispered voices. Chan and Chan skillfully weave a powerful narrative and leave the audience with eerie but lasting impressions.
A third knockout for the evening is “Love Stories” (2013) by DancEthos artistic director Tiffany Haughn. Motown favorites from Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson to Otis Redding and Frankie Lyman unify the alternately saucy and plaintive choreography. One fellow (Rick Westerkamp) acrobatically plots, fusses and finally “gets the girl” (Jenny T. Flemingloss), while a luckless female in red (Rachel Turner) trails after a guy (Donnie Walker) on her knees. An aerialist suspended high above the other dancers (Dana Yasek) concludes the piece by walking dramatically through space. In this final piece of the evening, Haughn upstages even her collaborator Deviated Theatre, for whom aerials constitute a familiar staple.
Indeed, a world premiere by Deviated Theatre and penultimate work of the evening, “Iteration: Emphasis” by Chan and Chan strikes this writer as formulaic, given the surplus of apocalypse-themed movies in recent years. Robotics, the construct underlying many of the movements, cannot singlehandedly push the boundaries of choreography for a piece purporting to evoke outer space. What about lurking, hiding, groveling, ricocheting? Aerialist Catherine David provides some diversion, as do costumes such as the metallic neck collars created by fashion designer Andy Christ.
As if the audience is not surfeited with futuristic themes, the second half of the program opens with a presentation by Deviated Theatre of an excerpt from “creature” (2014), an evening-length work. Drawn from Act I, “The Age of Exuberant Oafs”, Chan and Chan costume their dancers with blue mitts and once more opt for both a robotic and whimsical ambience. Young children in danger of becoming frightened by the screaming at the end are invited to watch an alternate skit in the lobby by company volunteers. Fresh angles with some variant themes exhibiting the talents of this husband and wife director/choreographer team would be beneficial.
More palatable is Chan and Chan’s “Gun”, a world premiere and duet to “9 crimes by Damien Rice”. Danced by Catherine David and Lauren Marsden, this choreography mutes the robotic look to produce a doppelgänger (copycat) effect. Bodies talk to themselves, undertaking complicated falls and rippling effects, before arm movements at the end finally allow the pair to separate from each other.
DancEthos offers two more lighthearted pieces to supplement the pieces by Chan and Chan. “Goes Without Saying” (2015) by Elizabeth Odell Catlett opts for unconventional partnering and features two male dancers (Walker and Nathan Victoria). They pass off a female in some angular shapes and eventually flip her in one of several surprising moments.
In the world premiere of “Twinkle”, guest choreographer Roxann Morgan Rowley uses a progressively offkey version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as her music. Sung by offspring Malcolm Rowley, the piece illustrates the mental gymnastics of the bedtime hour that challenge both parent and child. Guest artist Sara Herrera-Kopetchny, in a back-to-the-audience cameo of gyrations worthy of a Punch and Judy puppet show, literally steals the scene in a final lineup of dancers.
Finally, Haughn opens the evening with her high-spirited “Spectrum” (2013). This ensemble piece, set to music by Patrick Laird and Ivan Trevino, shows the DancEthos artistic director’s gift for fast-paced percussive movement and abrupt changes of direction. Known for both wit and bombast, Haughn seems incapable of producing non-involvement on the part of her audiences. Her company was a finalist for Outstanding Emerging Group at the 2011 Metro DC Dance Awards and was lauded by DC Metro Theater Arts as “stunning, captivating, relatable, romantic . . .” (2013). The Washington Post has praised her “knack for inventive ensemble work” (2012).
Haughn is a holder of a dual undergraduate degree – a B.F.A. in dance and a B.A. in psychology (a discipline that serves her particularly well) from Jacksonville University (Florida). In addition, she holds an M.A. in dance from George Mason University (Virginia). A distinguished teacher who has been chosen four times for Who’s Who Among American Teachers (a roster that includes many local and regional universities as well as professional companies), she currently teaches adult intermediate modern dance on Tuesday nights at Joy of Motion (Bethesda branch). Among the many venues in which DancEthos has performed are Dance Place, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, The Workhouse Center for the Arts, American University’s Greenberg Theatre, Joe’s Movement Emporium and Atlas Performing Arts Center.
Since the founding of their company in 2008, Chan and Chan of Deviated Theatre have combined acting, dancing and aerials, using the “fantastical stories of other worlds” as a window on the machinations and affairs of humans. They are the recipients of numerous grants and awards, including “Best of 2014” by DC Metro Theater Arts and the Individual Artists Award for Choreography from the Maryland State Arts Council (2011 and 2014).
Copyright © 2016 by Luella Christopher