DANCE ICONS THESIS CONCERT at Dance Loft on 14 by Luella Christopher

By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.
Dance Loft on 14
Washington, DC
May 14, 2019

Seven freshly minted graduates of the ICONS Choreographic Institute presented their new works at Dance Loft in a smorgasbord of world premières on May 11 and 12, 2019, the second night of which was viewed by this writer. Established in September 2016 by Vladimir Angelov as part of Dance ICONS, Inc., the Institute offers emerging choreographers an avenue for research and experimentation with the art form of dance. It also provides multiple venues for performance such as the community-oriented but aspiringly highbrow Dance Loft, whose director and founder is Diana Movius.

Each work by choreographers – from newbies to the seasoned – made unique contributions to myriad sectors of dance such as movement technique, often boundary-busting music and iconoclastic theater. “Trilemma”, the first work of the evening by choreographer Paul Lytle, exhibited a savvy melding of ballet and modern dance moves. Temps de flêche, cabrioles and grand battements à la seconde, tours en passé and splits by Lytle’s trio of dancers (Lily Janneck, Margaux Lister and Leila Stehlik-Barry) sliced through air and space, while finger-snapping evoked the opening scene of “West Side Story”.

The featured composition by Leonard Bernstein was nonetheless his ode to high energy-level jazz, “Prelude, Fugue and Riffs”. It remains one of this writer’s faves in the musical medium of jazz, largely due to unrelenting sequences of syncopated sixteenth notes played by a bevy of trumpets and woodwinds. One caveat: Lytle’s frequent juxtaposition of “slow-mo” counterpoint in the dance moves with such driving music, a commendable technique in its own right, did not ultimately convince once it had threaded its way through much of the choreography. This young man clearly shows the promise of increasingly mature and innovative endeavors.

Jess Hoversen’s “The Light of Slow Descent”, literally surges from the deconstructionist harmonies of Arvo Part. Her piece is distinguished as the most abstract choreography of the ICONS program, meeting the high bar that characterizes Angelov’s mentoring.

Hoversen chose the theme of persistence yet defeat as surfaced in Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 seminal work, “The Old Man and the Sea”. From the opening moment when one dancer stands at the head of an all-female cast that mimics the ocean – undulating and pitching – we are hypnotized by the uniform but also the desynchronous nature of a surf that eternally tugs and pulls. Bodies twist and turn or morph into waves, fish or strands of seaweed.

A measured cartwheel (Mariah Lopez Solonick) over the backs of a pair of dancers suggests steadfast rather than fickle components of the sea. An ocean surge catches a small wave rolling through the larger nexus. At a key juncture, it appears that the fabled fish (Hemingway’s marlin, portrayed by Anna Beeman), is passed over the heads of all the others, whether they constitute ocean waves, underwater wonders or possibly the friends referenced in Hoversen’s opening explication.

Arvo Part’s post-modern composition suits the theme of Hoversen’s piece and mounts a crescendo reminiscent of the final movement of Debussy’s “La Mer”. All motion reaches a frenzy, yet the ocean never ceases – even in hiatuses between musical phrases and the few moments of complete silence. The edited musical cross-fades add to a polished construction.

Finally, a single dancer acts as a vortex amidst the encircling waves, friends or predatory sea creatures. One observer posited that like the marlin, the remains of that last lone figure were drifting to the bottom of the sea where they would exist in permanent obscurity. The grand ensemble passages were so thoroughly realized that I hardly watched individuals, even my daughter Sylvana. Hoversen fosters utter visualization equivalent to Impressionist trends evinced in the last two centuries of art and music. Such sophisticated crafting renders her choreography sublime.

“The Light of Slow Descent”. Choreographed by Jessica Hoversen. Photo by Molly Schlachter

Shifting to the bombast and overt sexuality of the third and fourth works – Mecca Mayers’ “Recovering Undercover Over-Lover” and Lopez Solonick’s “Indelible” – proved a bit jarring. In hindsight, programming could have allowed for insertion between these two works with the Hoversen piece, thus alternating the hip-hop/modern dance genre’s tone and style rather than possibly conflating the choreographic and narrative intentions of Mayers and Solonick.

Mayers’ piece, set to a pastiche of musical compositions, made ample use of the spoken word. It opens with a man (Marcel Byrd) crawling around a couch. He is joined by a vigorous woman (Denise Urban) who cozies up to him before a third female dancer enters. She is perhaps a protagonist who delights in “egging on” the initial pair to start fighting with each other. We learn that “doors lead to trap doors . . . or a stairway that leads to nothing“. (My source insists this is actually ”‘Intuition” by singer Beyoncé, curiously unidentified in the program.)

Three more female dancers join the group, including Mayers, the near-bald and pencil-thin choreographer herself. They rotate through downstage “in-your-face” grand pliés à la seconde, rubbing their hands together but also up and down in a slithering or calculating fashion. Two of the dancers mirror each other; one is angry and one is calm. They separate, then slouch backward toward each other. This interlude serves as a commentary on the confusing, contradictory and compromising nature but allure of amorous relationships.

Did I detect one of the main themes from the recent critically-acclaimed horror movie, “Us”? (My source relays that it’s rapper/speaker Luniz, also unidentified along with other composers in the program.) This choice of music poses no mere coincidence; Mayers’ piece is downright eerie. Yet hope emerges as the intermittent spoken narrative resumes: “I love you through the midnight hours and put you straight to sleep”.

In the midst of such angst, petite Asian dancer (Cecilia Shang) startles with a quick spiral of barrel turns. She is practically modeling “Peking opera” – a genre of theater that utilizes motions and gestures from ancient martial arts. In celebration of a doctorate earned forty years ago this weekend, you may skim or study my French-English-Chinese illustrated glossary of a true multifaceted hybrid – Russian classical ballet reformulated as Madame Mao’s politically correct images during the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China (all this having originated as courtly, then classical ballet in France and Italy), then cross-pollinated with the older martial arts of East and Southeast Asia. See my Ph.D. dissertation, “Pirouettes with Bayonets” (short title), American University’s School of International Service, 1979.

Mayers concludes with a riff on Bob Fosse’s signature “amoeba” formation: sideways stomping by the whole tightly woven cast. Should the audience jump up and participate? Is this a hackneyed bit of stage management or the gust of air we’ve been “waiting to exhale”? Urban re-enters this time in a rose hombre tunic dress, upending the sleek all-black costuming, signifying her freedom from subservience to lovers. It’s also an enticement to the audience (including my son-in-law John Lee) to brave the stage and dance with a member of the cast.

Or, are we simply reconciled to Mayers’ thesis? That is, after transiting through a host of relationships, we become what we were always meant to be – ourselves? “Tuff stuff”, but more believable than when first imparted in the preview of her work. Music: Bella Boo, DJ Detroyt, Lophiile, Quentin Sirjacq, I Got 5 On It (Tethered Mix), Jordan Rakei, The Internet.

Just as we’re catching our breath, on comes Solonick’s “Indelible”, several notches darker than the Mayers piece. The choreographer tackles the subject of sexual violence and subsequent travesty of society’s partial verdict that the victim should be blamed. The maligned individual will then need to navigate the four stages of grief: shock, anger, loneliness and fortifying – mostly in random order.

We are bombarded with stark red lighting from the beginning and depiction of a demonized woman (played by Kimberly Thompson) whose face and torso are plastered with glaring red lipstick. A Medusa-like character approaches the woman. The victim of sexual violence appears to be convicted by society. The corps jut their limbs, clawing at the victim; executing sharp, angular turns; emiting hisses and taunts to the words of a Latin requiem Mass. The “accused” is reduced to an embattled insect.

Momentary relief is provided by a slightly softer Asian female (Shang, also seen in the work by Mayers) who acts as a calming influence or empathetic friend. A third female (Jamie Solomon) is pacified but doubts that she can be redeemed. Yet the whole ensemble is mired in hypervigilance: a persistent fear of constant threat. Spoken words label the occurrence as a mere panic attack. Certainly, that is the case with the “accused central character and probably also with the others”.

Such outcomes are anticipated in illusions to drownings; the fluttering of fingers; beating of their own chests. The music of Philip Glass, The Bee Gees, Ahmed Eltobgy and Stiles Silinki sets the pace for a soundtrack that’s nearly deafening with its excessive volume. I did not savor the piece; in fairness to the choreographer, however, we are not expected to embrace this “sign of the times”. My low comfort level is not meant to disparage the impressive technical and dramatic expertise of the dancers. “Indelible” does tell a story, albeit a sordid one. These four works filled up a mere half of the space in ICONS’ programming for the “thesis concert”.

“RedMasque”. Choreographed by Alicia E. Díaz de León . Photo by Jeff Malet

After intermission, the audience at Dance Loft received an injection of mostly classical ballet. “RedMasque” represents the creation of emerging choreographer Alicia E. Díaz de León. Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Masque of the Red Death”, it tells the tale of a masquerade ball inside a dollhouse hosted by an endearing young girl. Atmospherics for the ballet’s very first moments are established by an actual dollhouse planted onstage with some of the masked characters we are about to meet.

Set to familiar waltzes of Aram Khachaturian, Diaz de Leon’s work also utilizes a composition by Bajofondo and the blissful “Claire de Lune” of Claude Debussy. The piece distinguishes itself with the appearance of four male dancers (Aaron Bauer, Sammy Hagrud, Max Maisey and Edward Yates). In addition, the men’s technique and partnering skills were impeccable, as in sequential duets and supported pirouettes en pointe for the lead female dancer (Melissa Lineburg). This yellow-masked dancer flicks off her admirer and returns cloaked in a blood-red mask and cape, dismissing him. A child and father return with two dolls upended. The little girl is put to bed with a red blanket. Diaz de Leon this reveals a playfulness and overall theatricality but respect for “pure” classical ballet moves.

“Songs My Mother Taught Me” by choreographer Rachael Alexandra begins by showcasing a floor-bound young woman in bright yellow (Lauryn Hoskins) dancing within a circle of friends and family. According to Alexandra, the young woman is the locus of society’s crucial mother-daughter relationships. A sweet duet to one of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedies” ensues. This segues into a quartet to Duke Ellington’s “Stormy Weather”.

The women dance with bare feet, affording the work a currency in the genre of modern dance-theater. Suddenly, a bench and a giant blue teddy bear frame the young girl and her relatives. The articles of clothing aptly depict the progression of a second girl (Bianca Villatoro) from youth to full grown woman. The gestures of these two incorporate a hilarious emptying-out, piece-by-piece, of an overflowing laundry basket. Alexandra’s artful storytelling is bolstered by the compositions of LadySmith Black Mambazo, JoAnn Appold and Harry Belafonte.

The evening’s final offering, Naomi Lang’s ethereal “Ellipses”, revolves around the solar system and planetary bodies. These entities, portrayed by seven women and one man (Yates), act as a way of developing and altering relationships. As individuals and collectives, we explore and expand both physical and personal space. Basically, how do we orbit around each other?

Jiggly butts give a sense of brimming activity. In fact, costumes for this work were designed with an eye for illumination as, for example, silvery-white leggings and crop tops (the latter with mesh overlay). The effect is one of spreading an iridescent veneer over the entire stage, quite similar to the solar system and the Milky Way.

Lang’s construction of the piece is gorgeous. A fiery Venus knockout, AnnaMarie Tiss pops with explosive energy and laser crystal-eyed focus. Atticus Mooney’s heavenly stance among the fallen stars lends a feeling of wholeness. Undoubtedly, we are coping with a treacherous earthly existence. Mooney is absorbed like a corkscrew into the center of an ever-spiraling race to our denouement. Music: Tony Anderson, Spiffy Man, Olafur Arnalds.

What a feast of choreographic riches!

Copyright © 2019 by Luella Christopher