After fifteen months watching virtual dance, I attended two live dance concerts in a row. The one that I am reviewing is the Pasadena based Nancy Evans Dance Theatre (NEDT), led by Artistic Director Nancy Evans Doede. Works 2021: An Outdoor Performance was set in the lovely courtyard of the St. James Church on Washington Blvd. with the physically distanced audience sitting in lawn chairs or on blankets spread out on the grass. The program was constructed in two acts that could not have been more different, demonstrating the wide range of NEDT’s repertoire. Act One, featured the choreographed of company members Ashleigh Doede and Jenn Logan, performed primarily on hoops and bars suspended within a portable aerial rig. The entirety of Nancy Evans Doede’s choreography for Act Two focused on the lives of woman featured in the novels written by American author John Steinbeck.
THE HAPPY ACCIDENT was choreographed and performed by Ashleigh Doede to Natascha by Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra and Strangers in The Night sung by Frank Sinatra. While reading a book, Doede bumps into the hanging aerial bar, becomes intrigued and succumbs to the joys of swirling, twirling and spinning. While exciting to see Doede demonstrate her exquisite dance technique while in motion off the ground, the choreography did not quite hold true throughout.
Jenn Logan choreographed and performed in CARRY ME HOME to Lux aurumque by Eric Whitacre – Polyphone & Stephen Layton. She is found lying on the floor in a gorgeous white dress with bird sounds filling the air. Logan makes her way to the aerial bar suspended by brilliant red ropes that stand out like razor slashes. The mood is somber, serene and I had the sense that her character was facing death or the end of a powerful moment in her life. The musicality and the positions on the aerial bar made total sense here, and the work was stunning.
Noel Dilworth is featured in Ashleigh Doede’s SUN STREAMS. This was not an aerial work but performed inside the rig giving it a sense of seclusion and introspection. Dressed in a mauve top and a pink tulle skirt, Dilworth moves aptly through Doede’s very lyrical and balletic choreography. Doede is a very musical dancer when performing work by other choreographers, but that talent does not as yet show within her choreography. Dilworth was struggling to connect the movement and to make it flow. This is a strong work which needs attention.
Ashleigh Doede returns to the aerials with her wonderful and, for me, occasionally humorous SANS LE LAC. It is a take on the famous Dying Swan ballet choreographed by Mikhail Fokine in the early twentieth century. Here the swan is without her lake and tries to take to the sky via a lavender colored aerial hoop. This time Doede succeeds connecting her choreography to the art of the aerialist.
JUS ‘LIL ELEPHANT’S was choreographed and performed with spirit and comedic timing by Jenn Logan to St. James Infirmary by Allen Toussaint. Dressed in a black dress with white polka dots and bright red panties a la Toulouse-Lautrec’s Can Can dancers, Logan’s character shifts between becoming languid and playful as she sits, spins and flips above the ground. Again, Logan maintains the connection between story line and aerial acrobatics.
Nancy Evans Doede began her career as one of the original members of now world-renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago before joining the Minneapolis based Nancy Hauser Dance Company. Her theatrical training is evident in much of her work and especially during the premiere of STEINBECK’S WOMEN where Doede drew her inspiration from women in five of Steinbeck’s novels, introduced briefly during a short Prologue to Kelly’s Waltz played by The Celtic Fiddle Rush. Throughout, Steinbeck’s Women is narrated with great skill of both spoken word and emotion by Helene McCardle.
CURLY’S WIFE is the name given to the female character in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937) performed here by Jenn Logan. Curly is abusive to his wife and we experience the aftermath of one of their quarrels which sends Curly’s wife crashing into the room after being slugged in the jaw by her husband. She is unhappily married and prone to being flirtatious towards other men. She is beautiful, sexy and extremely lonely. Doede breathes life into this character’s inner conflicts with subtle gestures, facial expressions, and movement that alters along with Curly’s wife’s emotional shifts. Loneliness morphs into defiance as Curly’s wife applies makeup, a fancy pair of high heel shoes and struts herself out the door toward town, refusing to play the victim.
The music for Curly’s Wife was Tin Roof Blues, written by New Orleans Rhythm Kings, played by Fiddle Fiddle Fiddle, and a compilation of horseshoe match and Deep Deep Water, by Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
One of the highlights of the afternoon was to watch Nancy Evans Doede portray the diner waitress MAE from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). As the narration informs, Mae feels that life is whizzing by her on Route 66, where the diner she’s worked in for much of her life is located. Doede is a master at seamless transitions from handling props into movement. The swirl of a wash cloth evolves into a turn that leads to a longer dance phrase. The audience watches her agonize, weep, get angry at having to clean up yet another diner’s mess but Doede never overacts, never loses character or her dancer self. She is a performer who drops her own persona to present the life of Mae to her audience.
For Mae, Doede chose Hard Times, written by Stephen Foster, played by Doc Fiddle McNair, and She Remembers by Max Richter.
LIMBO is a gentle walking section performed wonderfully by Noel Dilworth, Ashleigh Doede, and Jenn Logan. The three women are seen as individuals, yet Doede’s simple shifts from walking to brief movement phrases, links them to women everywhere and throughout time who feel that they are trapped in a role they feel obligated to fulfill. The women perform to traditional music by The Wild Mountain Fiddlers and Ragtime Annie.
LIZA HAMILTON from East of Eden (1952) is the next woman Doede brings to life. Performed expertly by Karina Francis Jones, Liza is a stern and piteous woman, mother of nine and a grandmother who shows little, if any, affection to anyone. Jones’ rod straight back, tight jaw, how she tights her apron, or prepares a meal speaks clearly to the years of sacrificing her dreams for others. Dressed in a long, ruffled drab green prairie dress, Jones is magnificent in the role of Liza Hamilton.
The music for Liza Hamilton was Amazing Grace, written by Jon Newton, played by Fiddle Fiddle Fiddle; and Margot, written by Alex Baranowski, played by Angele Dubeau & La Pieta.
Noel Dilworth delivers a heartfelt performance as Juana, a character out of Steinbeck’s The Pearl (1947), the wife of a Pearl diver and mother of a newborn baby. Juana is the story of greed leading to the death of an innocent and the woman who has to bear that grief. A long black poncho-like shawl becomes a wonderful symbol of motherhood, culture, poverty and a vehicle for Doede to present a wonderful portrait of Juana.
COUNTERPARTS brings together two women from different novels, Mae and Liza. Choreographed by Doede and performed beautifully by Nancy Evans Doede and Karina Francis Jones, the two women who share similar emotions but who have lived vastly different lives find common ground: the joy of living and dreaming of better times ahead. The music is Fiddle Tune for Jenna, traditional, played by The Wild Mountain Fiddlers; and Blues, written and played by Max Geldray.
The Moon Is Down (1942) is the Steinbeck novel that includes MOLLY MORDEN, the widow living in a small northern European town occupied by Germans during WWII. Her husband was shot by soldiers as an example, putting fear into others who might want to resist them. Molly is lonely, young still and beautiful. A German soldier takes fancy to her and offers his friendship. Performed with great restraint and clarity by Ashleigh Doede, one feels her desire to use the scissors in her knitting basket to take revenge for her husband’s death. She chooses instead to move forward. What Doede rightfully leaves to the audience’s imagination is whether Molly seeks out the soldier’s affection or if she decides to join the resistance.
The music for Molly Morden was a compilation of soundscape and Together At Last, by Alexis Ffrench & Jobim Ffrench.
Danced to traditional music performed by Ragtime Annie, in EPILOGUE Doede brings the narrator and all of Steinbeck’s women together of a joyous hoedown and curtain call. Although a delight to watch, I hope that in the future Steinbeck’s Women will be presented in a theatrical setting with full production values. The sight and sound of cars whizzing by and watching dancers perform on a hot marley floor was often distracting. I did, however, enjoy every moment of feeling the energy emitting from the stage by excellent performers.
The Sound Director for Works 2021: An Outdoor Performance was Angie Vaughn, Videographer was James Van Leer, Rigging was by James Doede and Patrick Garcia, and Construction was by James Doede.
To visit the Nancy Evans Dance Theatre website, click HERE.
To read the bios of each performer, click HERE.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Nancy Evans Doede in MAE – Photo by Shana Skelton