Once considered an untouchable privilege for women and minorities, voting is a right most people tend to take for granted. With the recent rise in society’s awareness of women’s issues, it felt only natural that this year’s centennial anniversary of Congress’s signing of the 19th amendment would get a bang of a celebration. On August 16, Deborah Brockus, founder of the Los Angeles Dance Festival (LADF), paid tribute to the suffragettes that have gone before us with her curation of Women Rising: Choreography from the Female Perspective at Ford Theatres. The show was a powerful dedication on behalf of L.A.’s dance community that dually shone a light on the city’s female-driven contribution to the artistic genre’s past, present and future.
The evening began with a few site-specific pre-performances to warm up the dance floor before the main stage show. BrockusRED dancers dressed in symbolic white-and-hot-pink, LADF-colored costumes (white for the suffragettes of old and hot pink for today’s pussy hats worn during the annual Women’s March) stood on tables and waved their bodies in the wind, inciting those approaching the festival before the audience was bid to rise up to the fifth floor terrace. There, Charlotte Katherine & Co, donning soft pastel colors, danced nimbly along a staircase with thoughtful poses and gentle embraces to live cello playing. Their performance was a bit more difficult to catch because of the limited standing space surrounding their location, but its exclusiveness added intrigue to the dance.
Beginning the on-stage show was a piece called “Icons: Women Who Moved Dance Forward LA Proud” conceived by Deborah Brockus and choreographed by Judith FLEX Helle and Erin Landry. It began with a golden-clad figure credited as the Goddess of Dance (Rosanna Tavarez) spreading her wings like an eagle on the highest perch within the Ford’s terraced, hilly backdrop. Her blessing bestowed, eight women performed signature moves from well-known choreographers Isadora Duncan (Gretchen Ackerman), Ruth St. Denis (Carmen Derouin), Martha Graham (Charlotte Katherine Smith), Doris Humphrey (Paige Amico), Maria Tallchief (Kelly Vittetoe), Katherine Dunham (Adronni Willis), Agnes DeMille (Sadie Black with Cory Goei as her partner) and Bella Lewitzky (Julienne Mackey). The piece was charming, but awkwardly concluded with an entourage of women dressed in white descending from the staircase with large signs baring slogans about suffrage and women’s equality. This presentation was a bit too on-the-nose, creating a forced and visually jarring connection not necessarily in tune with the history of dance piece seen moments earlier.
The first half of the night was a mix of suave and rhythmic performances. First up was Luminario Ballet’s version of Letwitzky’s TURF (1992) directed by Judith FLEX Helle. The show was identical to one I recently reviewed at Cafe Fais Do-Do. Composed mostly of the same dancers (Tiger Ryan, Windu Sayles, David Tai Kim and Cory Goei), the piece remains powerful as the day I first saw it, and quintessentially L.A. seeing as it was meant to be a reaction to the historical Rodney King Riots.
A strong contrast, but equally compelling was Kitty McNamee’s “The Farewell” — a gorgeous duet between Jessica Gadzinski and Raymond Ejiofor to music by Claude Debussy. Illustrating a tragic breakup, the movements carried a special, Earthy swagger as thrusting arms, swinging hips and jutting elbows suddenly dominated the characters’ floating waltz. Through breakdowns, reconnections, begging and rejection, the couple created a vivid portrayal of every possible stage of dying love.
JazzAntiqua Dance & Music Ensemble’s Suite Nina choreographed by Pat Taylor followed it up with a lively piece featuring Keisha Clark-Booth, Justin Edmonson, Tashara Gavin-Moorehead, Sara Platte, Jason Poullard and Shari Washington Rhone. Traversing a timeline of traditional jazz movements all the way back to ancient African root dances, the choreography expressed a journey toward freedom illustrated by the incomparable Miss Nina Simone. Through open palms, swishy shoulders and quick shifts to match the beat, each performer appeared wholly in touch with their partners, shining as they moved in unison or in short, responsive duets. Their piece was amongst the loveliest of the night and filled every moment with self-healing and eventually, joy.
Blue13 Dance Company’s …but by others’ seeing, choreographed by Achinta S. McDaniel in collaboration with soloist Adrianna Vieux and set to A.R. Rehman’s music expressed a strong, sexual vibe not yet seen on stage. Vieux stomped her feet as she moved toward and away from the crowd throughout the piece, making good use of the Ford’s two-level stage. She added to the soundtrack with each step she took thanks to two large, red anklets full of jingling bells. The Bollywood-style piece was brasher than your typical Indian dance and had a contemporary style all its own.
Rounding out the first act was BrockusRED’s Ritual, a multi-stage piece to Stravinsky and DakhaBrakha’s music, which showcased Mackey, Ejifor, Leah Hamel, Blair Pope, Halley Transue, Robert Gomez and Olivia Perez’s talents through what felt like a tribal ceremony. Ejifor primarily took center stage, standing out from his fellow dancers with his agility and as the main character in a storyline that saw him persecuted as though meaning to be a human sacrifice. The piece was a bit long, but the group’s back-bending stretches and synchronicity was appealing to watch.
During the 15-minute intermission Sarah Elgart/Arrogant Elbow performed Detained in the Forde’s plaza to Paul Chavez/FeltLike’s electronic beats. Ariana Daub, Sam McReynolds, Carissa Songhorian and David Hammer formed a disconnected quartet that hardly interacted throughout the extent of the piece. Daub danced in a red dress, McReynolds struggled with a bar that went through his suit sleeves making him appear like Jesus on the cross and Songhorian attempted to unravel herself from restricting ropes and cables. McReynolds and Songhorian engaged a bit toward the end of the work, particularly after Hammer’s sudden appearance as a government official looking for fugitives or refugees with dog Hirie-Maul. He walked through the group, shining a flashlight at them before including the audience in his search. More interaction among the performers would have made the dance feel more cohesive, but the decision to make the work immersive added depth to the piece.
Back on stage, the show shifted entirely from short grounded performances to longer, more ethereal and other-worldly pieces, starting with Kybele Dance Theatre’s Yabangülü (or Wild Rose), choreographed by Seda Aybay to music by Nils Frahm. Aybay, Omar Canedo, Robert Gomez, Amanda Tran, Caitlin Heflin and Marii Kawabata moved like aliens curling and uncurling their fingers, grabbing their faces and roughly swaying their bodies into angular edges. Although there were moments of coupling and individual spotlighting, the group mostly moved as one, all apparently digging deep to find a deeper, purer inner self. Though interesting to watch, the conclusion did not stand out from the rest of the piece — it may have lost its meaning overall without the program description.
Rosanna Gamson/WORLD WIDE toned down the sound and upped the intensity with excerpt “Louange” from Quartet for the End of Time to Oliver Messiaen’s melancholic song of the same name. Ackerman, Lavinia Findikoglu, Jinglin Liao and Stephanie Zaletel appeared onstage as mimes, all in black with painted white faces, moving in slow motion as though in a French film noir. Slow motion poses and curious coupling featuring a slightly sexual synergy saw the ladies searching for one another in the near-dark, reaching out and dramatically touching arms to chins. Quirky, yet serious, the piece had a resonating impact in its exploration of self as it analyzed isolation and the need to find one’s tribe.
Continuing with the theme of self-discovery was MASHup Contemporary Dance’s U N R A V E L, choreographed by Victoria Brown and Sarah Rodenhouse. The dance explored one woman (Nicole Hagen)’s path to creating her identity. The beginning found her mostly absorbed in a group with Leah LaGrange, Megan Kenson, Shelby Davis, Megan Picas, Hannah Hawkins, Jade Falkenberg, Abby Ruiz and Stephanie Heckert. An overwhelming sense of togetherness kept most of the ensemble together during the first part. The women leaned against one another before using their strength to maneuver as a unit, ebbing and flowing in waves on both levels of the stage. Heckert, however, stuck out as the de facto main character once it was clear she was not satisfied assimilating with the rest. During the second portion she performed a vibrant solo, during which she attempted to show growth by removing the white, sheer costume top she and all of the rest of the dancers wore, but being unable to discard the cloth as a direct sign of her inability to let go.
Hagen made a second immediate appearance in the final piece — L.A. Contemporary Dance Co’s EBBA, which concluded the evening with a multilayered work by Genevieve Carson. Set to Robert Amjärv’s diverse soundtrack, the piece featured Hyosun Choi, Kate Coleman, Jamila Glass, Tess Hewlett, Drea Sobke and Angel Tyson, with guest artists Olivia Euritt, Nicole Flores, Colleen Hendricks and Ashlee Merritt. Though able to showcase variety in multiple styles ranging from pure contemporary to modern disco, the piece was a bit too long, transitioning several times until its point became lost. Still, the choreography was bold, sensual and captivating for much of the work.
Brockus’ collaborative selection of artists truly illustrated the modern dance movement L.A. helped found. Many of the works shown were excerpts from upcoming shows audience members may look forward to seeing performed in full in the near future. Others by slightly lesser known creators sparked intrigue and a welcome curiosity about current happenings throughout the city. Most importantly however, her timely tribute to women’s historical roots of protest helped voice united support for the fight against inequality issues we continue to face today.
Written by Lara J. Altunian for LA Dance Chronicle, August 23, 2019
Featured image: Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Company in Ebba by Genevieve Carson – Photo by Robbie Sweeny