Since Denna Thomsen and Zak Ryan Schlegel’s lovechild Congress was born in November 2018, I’ve seen this dynamite duo expand the salon-style collective in and for platforms beyond my wildest imagination. Congress, meaning “step together” has not only been a platform for choreographers, dancers, and artists but also disruptors, rebels, and a community of revolutionists in the industry of change. This year, for Volume VIII, last Sunday’s performance partnered with L.A. Dance Project & Association with Margot Station to give another night of drinks, food, and of course…dance. Unlike Volume VII back in May, which seemed to highlight the injustice and inhumanity towards transphobia and general cruelty towards the LGBTQIA+ community, the past Sunday’s programming took a humbler note. Thomsen and Schlegel began their evening with introductions, and a short bit about the inequality and inequity dance artists face in the commercial industry and beyond when it comes to finances and respect. However, a softer side to them was seen this round that I have not witnessed in years past.
They spoke about the performers and choreographers in the collective’s line up that evening as if they were all their own children, their babies, their biggest pride and joy. I realized that Congress Volume VIII has reached that crucial and important stage where there is now a lineage; more than a community…Congress has become a family.
Robbie Blue’s piece “Robbie Blue’s Darling Diamond Dollies” really set the intense tone of Congress with a playful and sexy piece set to music by the Dresden Dolls, and Amanda Palmer. With one of the largest casts that evening, performers Ashley Nickole, Bailey Holt, Aniyah Inman, Summer Waikiki, Alex White, Nina Sawaya, Sierra Vail, Lola Coghill, Tori Kent, Elle Dimos, Anais Petra, Derek Tabada, Danny Axley, Drew Gliwa, Marlon Pelayo and Zach Greene broke the third wall with provocative prowl. Remaining in almost complete synchronized union, each dancer dressed in their personal form of lingerie and would pronounce the high beats with an accented move. And while I was enamored with each performer’s intentional flirtation and mystery, I also felt a sincere vulnerability. Even when the male dancers entered the space in white tank tops held down by suspenders and black trousers, I couldn’t help but also see an exposed yearning for a type of individualism amongst the unification.
Jacob Jonas choreographed a piece entitled “A Sharing” performed by Baptista Kawa with music by Frank Ocean. As Kawa flipped into a single spotlight centerstage, you could feel the energy of the piece exploding in a million directions. Kawa, dressed in red slouchy pants, gave beautiful repetitive motifs such as pulling back an imaginary bow ‘n arrow in all directions of the audience. And while he never left the spotlight, the darkness of heartache seemed to consume him. With one backflip after another, it seemed set choreography might have been disconnected from the improvisational default patterns. The piece, although visually beautiful, did feel disconnected between choreographer and dancer, and therefore dancer to audience.
Mayte Valdes and Carlos Barrionuevo, gave an incredibly intricate Argentinian tango entitled “Watashi” with music by Taro Hakase and Luis Bravo. With a nude colored, crystal decked corset, and bedazzled nude mesh skirt, it was difficult to look away from the poised presence of Valdes at all. With intimate eye gazing and tension, there was a precision in the slow burn that felt private and sensual and extremely fulfilling. As Barrionuevo lifted Valdes up over his head, twisted her around, and caught her in what seemed an impossible stunt, you could hear the audience gasp. It was like peering into an intimate show they put on just for the two of them, and you almost felt naughty finding the peephole into their lives.
Tony Testa, by far a favorite of the evening, performed “Blackbox 1: Excerpt” with music by Vivaldi. Testa entered the space in tap shoes as he made his way around the boundaries of the stage. With the lights intentionally brightened for the first minute or so, suddenly everything went black, and a cone shaped hanging light was lowered center stage, as the audience’s eyes adjusted to the blackness. Testa then performed a series of vignettes underneath the spotlight, while the light fixture adjusted its height between blackouts in proximity to the ground. It was grungy, it was raw, it was impulsive, and yet thought through from beginning to end as a full length concept within itself. At once point Testa laid underneath the light as smoke began to crawl from the bowels of seemingly nowhere. It was an environment of one man’s massive aura and the audience was enthralled. Whenever and wherever the full length piece is performed will not want to be missed!
Lex Ishomoto performed “Again and Again” with music by Jordan Rakel, Freddie Joachim, and Gyrefunk. His style, super smooth, chill, and unprocessed gave the audience the impression that he may be improvising from start to finish. But it is the sort of Sunday morning, clean the house, cook good food, favorite tv show vibe you are always craving. As the solo started in silence, I felt this powerful and candid honesty between the physicality of Ishomoto’s floorwork and the audience; however, when the music began, I felt an embellished tautness that did not need to be introduced.
Nico Lonetree’s piece “Angry ! Mad !” was performed by Maija Knapp, Danny Axley, Emmy Mae Ham, Shelby Davis, Ali Nagy, Jongo Zeizel, Monica Williams, Keilan Stafford, Ryan Green, Keelie Kessling, Miles Sherman, and Gia Granto with music by The Walkmen, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. With this being one of the only pieces to change its sense of front, I felt as though I had entered the heart of a concert’s mosh pit fighting something, fighting anything. With one dancer in white, and the others in all black, the discord of self-imagery was more present than ever. Even when a trio of three performers, in black and white shirts smoking fake cigarettes appear, their disruption seemed to only complicate the self imagery of the performer in white. The piece was mysteriously confusing in the most entertaining way possible. It was ungovernable, and frustrating, like how you feel on the brink of a breakthrough, like you are bound by nothing.
Mike Tyus’ piece “Howl” performed by himself and partner Luca Renzi, came out completely nude in a masterful duet of shapes. It became increasingly easier as they began to move, to see them in the whole bodies they have instead of the anonymous parts they possess. They became desexualized and experts in precisional autonomy, and I found myself wrapped in a movement of senses that was grounded and real. It felt as though I was watching something being born, without limitations on skin, color, race, or background. Performed by a reading by Allen Ginsberg, the poetic unity in the room was too bold to ignore.
Lastly, the warm hug that is Mandy Moore performed “Shack Attack” with performers Emily Crouch, Aysia Ianiero, George Lawrence, Jillian Meyers, Billy Mustapha, Martha Nichols, Robert Roldan, and Claire Ross to the song “Love Shack” by the B-52’s. Each performer dressed in colorful and playful tops and bottoms simply had the time of their lives. With the spirited connection each performer had with one another, it felt like a dance party that should never end. The entire piece was groovy, flirtatious, kitschy, and the perfect ending to a night celebrating the joy of dance.
At one point in the evening, Schlegel mentioned, “This art is wasted if not passed onto the next generation” while both Thomsen and Schlegel gave responses from the choreographers when asked “How does an artist prevail?” Volume VIII of Congress was bound by mentor and mentee mentality. How can we keep pushing the envelope of artistry within our community? How can we leave the industry better than when we entered? What can we do now to ensure dance has a place, not only in history, but in the hearts of the students we’re teaching? When Ryan and Thomsen asked Moore, “How does an artist prevail” she responded with, “Don’t stop. The simple act of creation is prevailing enough.” It is hard to imagine the next Volume of Congress could be any better, but surprisingly year after year, it holds the magic every time.
For more information about LA Dance Project, please visit their website.
Written by Grace Courvoisier for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: CONGRESS Volume VIII presented in partnership with L.A. Dance Project – Baptista Kawa in “Sharing”, choreography by Jacob Jonas – Photo by Carlos Gonzalez.