This past weekend NAVEL was the venue for The Spectacular Society choreographed by Marissa Osato for Entity Contemporary Dance. Osato drew her inspiration from historical facts about the U.S. government sanctioned Japanese American concentration camps (also known as internment camps) during WWII, as well as her grandmother’s personal stories. Although the work was strong and the performances excellent, I left NAVEL with the sense that some essential ingredient was missing. Had one not read the program notes, the work came across primarily as an overall social commentary rather than a look at the serious subject that Osato stated in her description.

Marissa Osato is a choreographer, director, and educator. As stated in the program, Osato, Will Johnston and Elm Pizarro co-founded Entity Contemporary Dance in 2009 “with the intent to forge connections between the Southern California hip hop and contemporary dance communities”, though there was definitely no evidence of hip hop during this performance.

The interior arrangement of NAVEL was perfect for this piece. A glassed-in room allowed the audience to see the performers sitting, talking and mulling about as we waited and listened to musicians Alkis Nicolaides (guitar), Wesley Park (percussion), and Sean Riddle (bass) perform several jazz numbers. At first it appeared that the glassed-in area was simply a place for the dancers to warm up, but it later became apparent that it represented a holding area for the interned or immigrants in transition as seen in the media at the hands of the Trump administration.

Entity Contemporary Dance in Marissa Osato's "The Spectacular Society" - Photo by Hao Feng

Entity Contemporary Dance in Marissa Osato’s “The Spectacular Society” – Photo by Hao Feng

On cue, the dancers stormed out, placed a string of lights around the performance area, and danced and shouted their way through very presentational dance designed to entertain and wow that even included The Rockettes style precision high kicks. The mood shifted dramatically, however, as the “performance” ended, and the unseen observers were no longer there to be entertained. Put bluntly, the caged humans no longer had to put on a show for their captors.

Because Osato used several choreographic themes repeatedly throughout The Spectacular Society, they lost their power. People pacing along the edges of the “camp”, quietly voicing comments that were designed to convince others or themselves that the situation was ok, made its statement the first and second time we saw it but was weakened by its  third appearance.

Grayson McGuire and Jason Martin in "The Spectacular Society" - Photo by Hao Feng

Grayson McGuire and Jason Martin in “The Spectacular Society” – Photo by Hao Feng

There were powerful and poignant duets and solos that took on the subjects of confinement, terror and desperation for personal affection, and the electronically miked floor that echoed the performers’ movements and poundings, helped to visualize and enhance their internal struggles. Osato used movements that resembled professional wrestlers to clearly reflect these emotions during a duet with Jason Martin and Grayson McGuire, and the almost romantic encounter between Martin and Emily Crouch.

Osato repeated the pizzazz of the opening number but added tinfoil plates into the mix as offerings and the seeking of alms. The plates became personal creations that were then given as gifts to the audience; sometimes tentatively or begrudgingly. Karen Chuang gave an amazing performance during her lengthy and incredibly difficult solo that slowly disintegrated from determined escape into exhaustion and defeat. Her walking, crawling and slithering across the floor could have become monotonous, but Chuang managed to hold on to her character and continuously draw our attention and empathy.

Entity Contemporary Dance in "The Spectacular Society" - Photo by Hao Feng

Entity Contemporary Dance in “The Spectacular Society” – Photo by Hao Feng

Many elements for a successful work were present for Osato’s The Spectacular Society. The entire cast of dancers: Chuang, Crouch, Shiori Kamijo, Martin, McGuire, and Vickie Roan gave convincing and wonderful performances. The beautiful gray, yellow and brown costumes by Edurne Fernandez captured both the feel of interned uniforms and people in transit, and the music and sound score added a level of suspense. What was missing for me was the deep-down research into the meat of Osato’s intention. While I highly commend her efforts, by relying on repetitive situations, Osato merely scratched the surface of the disgraceful conditions that our government forced upon the Japanese American people; situations that are sadly echoed in this time of unfair treatment of many immigrants around the world. The solo for Chaung came the closest to meeting this challenge. The rest felt like Osato simply skimmed the surface of what were/are certainly horrific conditions to survive.

The Composer and Sound Design was by Alkis Nicolaides and the challenging lighting design was by Pei-Yu Lai.

Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle, November 25, 2019.

To visit the Entity Contemporary Dance website, click here.

For more information on NAVEL, click here.

Featured image: Karen Chuang in “The Spectacular Society” – Photo by Hao Feng