Keith Johnson/Dancers was founded in 1998 shortly after Johnson relocated from New York City to join the faculty of the CSULB Department of Dance. On Thursday, January 17, 2019, I attended the company’s 20th Anniversary Celebration concert at the Dance Center’s beautiful and intimate Martha B. Knoebel Dance Theatre. The program included two premiers, Atomic Ranch and Forgetting Freezing February, and two earlier works, SERIES: Freckled By His Recklessness (2018) and Panoramic Throat (2017).

Before forming his own company, Johnson performed with Ririe/Woodbury, Creach/Koester, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, and Doug Varone and Dancers. Though he did not perform on this concert, Johnson continues to perform with Nancy Bannon and Colleen Thomas. His work has been presented by numerous dance companies throughout the United States and Johnson has received two Lester Horton Awards for Choreography and a recipient of the Most Valuable Professor in The College of The Arts at CSULB.

The first, and weaker, half of the concert included, Atomic Ranch and SERIES: Freckled By His Recklessness. Set to the sometimes-irritating music of American composer Damon Ferrante, Atomic Ranch consisted of static, often robotic movement phrases intermingled with running and walking patterns. The relationship of the performers during these phrases were both interactive and reactive. By the latter I mean that a movement phrase of one dancer(s) would influence the dynamics or direction of another or others.

Johnson’s movement appeared to work independent of the music as well as in opposition to it. Sections included double duets that would intertwine and featured action/reaction properties. Although very well constructed, Atomic Ranch never quite came into focus as a cohesive work, but one of the highlights of this dance was a solo beautifully performed by Haihua Chiang.

The other strong cast members included Summer Brown, Colleen Hendricks, Ismael Miranda-Rumbo, and Andrew W. Palomanes. Costumes by Marina Harris and Andrew W. Palomanes.

It was unclear why SERIES: Freckled By His Recklessness came across as less than satisfying. Choreographed to the beautiful Franz Schubert aria “Ave Maria”, the solo had none of the lyrical or spiritual qualities of the very familiar music sung at weddings and funerals around the world. The performance of Ismael Miranda-Rumbo appeared shaky whereas not so in the other pieces that he performed in on the program. It was unclear to me whether Johnson was trying to avoid the qualities of the music, but the results were ambiguous. The well-fitting gold and blue costume was designed by Keith Johnson and Andrew W. Palomares.

50237787_2176262522689443_1922949067072077824_n 50927180_240624740026910_9194928912289759232_n Alvaro Nuñez, Ismael Miranda-Rumbo, Andrew W. Palomares, Courtney Ozovek Andrew W. Palomares, Spencer Jensen, Colleen Hendricks Photo Summer Brown Panoramic Throat-13_PC_Dat Nguyenresized Keith Johnson Dancers Photo Summer Brown
Andrew W. Palomares, Courtney Ozovek, Colleen Hendricks, Ismael Miranda-Rumbo, Spencer Jensen, Alvaro Nuñez - Keith Johnson/Dancers - Photo by Summer Brown

Things greatly improved in the second half with the poignant and beautifully performed Panoramic Throat. There was a strong chemistry between the main characters Haihua Chiang and Alvaro Nuñez and Summer Brown held the stage with her brief, but intensely powerful cameos. The man and woman often worked apart from one another, but the tension between them was palatable, and clearly defined their relationship.

That complex and complicated relationship was never resolved, but the dance communicated that it persisted and that it would most likely continue to be met with problems. Chiang was quietly brilliant with her portrayal of a woman made fragile by internal tensions, but one who desires the closeness of another person. Nuñez possessed a strong stage presence and caused me to both like and dislike his character.

Dressed in all white, Summer Brown crawled across the stage floor wiping it with a white rag as if cleansing the past or clearing a way for the future. Her part was small in Panoramic Throat, but she caused it to loom large. Costumes were designed by Keith Johnson and Andrew W. Palomares.

The final work on the program was Johnson’s very strong new work Forgetting Freezing February, set to “Songs For Liquid Days” by American composer and recent recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors award, Philip Glass. The dance suffered from one problem, a false ending that was totally unexpected, strong and very clever. I later found myself wishing that Johnson had stopped there, but overall I enjoy the work.

Forgetting Freezing February was a very energic dance, interspersed with seductive calmness. The entire company appeared strong in this work that was filled with Balanchine-like interweaving of body limbs, triple duets and double trios performed in well-rehearsed unison. The choreography had a strong communal sense that positioned each dancer as a clear sum of all the parts. Despite this cast unity, the dancer who continued to draw my eye was the lovely and technically agile Colleen Hendricks.

One other problem for me was the that I mostly could not understand all the words in Glass’s music. This seemed important because when I did catch a verbal phrase, the movement onstage appeared to reflect it. Not knowing what was being spoken robbed me of grasping Johnson’s full meaning. That said, I am sure that the technical problem can be solved and that this dance will only get better with age. I look forward to seeing it again.

The dancers who performed this last work so well included Colleen Hendricks, Spencer Jensen, Alvaro Nuñez, Courtney Ozovek, Andrew W. Palomares, and Ismael Miranda-Rumbo. The lighting by Elisha Griego enhanced all the works, giving each a clear and separate identity. Costumes for Forgetting Freezing February were by Keith Johnson and Andrew W. Palomares.

Congratulations Keith Johnson/Dancers on your 20th Anniversary!

For more information on the company, click here.

Featured image: Haihua Chiang – Keith Johnson/Dancers – Photo by Summer Brown