On May 8, 2021, I attended the Orange County Dance Festival’s live performances at the Rose Center Theater in Westminster, CA., along with their virtual shows on May 9th, produced by AkomiDance, directed by Co-Artistic Directors Marie Hoffman and Melesio A. Aceves, as well as managed by Alex Rasmussen. The diversity of each dance and company was truly astounding, and the professionalism and talent displayed at this concert was awe-inspiring. It was a great way to kick off getting back into seeing dance shows in person.

The 5:00pm live show seemed to evoke themes of childhood, life, and loss of innocence. As a whole, I felt that the show could accurately be categorized into individual bildungsroman excerpts, each with their own take, reflecting the differences of companies, dancers, and storylines. I am not sure that the directors provided central theme to the choreographers, but I found one and ran with it.

The piece “Littles,” choreographed by Melesio A. Aceves, performed by her company AkomiDance (A.J. Dirikson, Dani Furniss, Elena Gilogly, Alex Rasmussen, Jana Taylor, Matthew Wiley, Claire Zabaneh), opened the show and set the pace. I sensed a commentary on childhood and innocence, complete with skipping and high fives, but the dancers’ focus was frequently up and out, as if envisioning their futures and the lives ahead of them. The upbeat, electronic-style music was calming and exuded the jovial purity of children. “Littles” was overall very pleasant and nostalgic, and the movement was bouncy and carefree while simultaneously being controlled rather than tossed away or messy. Backed by a vibrant green, the dancers wore varying colors, denim shorts, ponytails, overalls, tying the theme of childhood together, everyone looking alike yet individually unique.

Battery” was a solo by Goblin Party, created by Hyoin Jun. The dance was different than any other I had ever seen for a multitude of reasons. The beginning was intense and stoic, accompanied by clean, airy movements and beautiful, weightless jumps. It was tastefully thrash-y and constantly turning until the music came to a halt and we were left to watch the dancer perform in silence. He was grabbing at the air, like he was searching for a bug, and when he finally caught it, he treated the thing in his hand as if it were one. It was truly a joy to watch Jun act. He placed the red light he had captured into his shirt, and it rested almost exactly where a heart would be, which I would assume was the goal. Jun used the object in his mouth to make these high pitched squeaky noises, taking the audience by surprise and by breaking the intense silence, made everyone laugh. This transitioned him into the next story, which was clearer to follow and touched on the theme of life I had placed upon this show. Jun acted out a proposal, having a baby, watching his child get older and move on, growing old himself and finally passing on. As Jun flew through the next section, the background displayed a blue sky, white, fluffy clouds, and birds chirping. He presented the audience with a balloon that he proceeded to handle the way he’d handled all of his props beforehand: with amazing stamina, incredible care, and shocking strength. I was wildly impressed with how seamlessly Jun handled his props and conveyed a story. To finish the dance, he left the blinking red light on stage, like his own heart, his own battery. It was truly a stunning sight to see.

Hyoin Jun - Photo courtesy of the artist

Hyoin Jun – Photo courtesy of the artist

Benita Bike’s DanceArt presented an excerpt from “Benches,” a dance choreographed by Benita Bike and performed by 4 beautiful dancers, Sarah Gertler, Mikensie Johnson, Clare Kiklowicz, and Trudy Niess. This performance was brought to the audience via video, displaying the women sitting on none other than a bench. They wore brown, red, and orange tone costumes, and accompanied by pleasant, light music. The obvious connection between the four of them was quite evident in their synchronicity and trust within each other. The dance as a whole was filled with cool arm movements, gorgeous lines, and a nice utilization of the prop that gave the dance its name. “Benches” was serious, but not sad or stoic, just easy and pleasant to watch because of the gorgeous dancers and flattering choreography.

The solo, “Resilience,” performed by Eliza S. Tollett, choreographed by Jestoni DagDag, and brought to OCDF by DagDag Dance was the only dance on pointe. The music began with drums, and the dancer appeared on stage wearing a black unitard, her hair in a tight French twist, and her lips a striking red. I am a sucker for a bold red lips, and this truly drew my attention since most of the other dancers in the show were not wearing lipstick (or at least none that I could see). For me, the makeup mattered. I may not have paid such close attention to Tollett had I not felt that her appearance screamed confidence and power. Her sharp movements and steadiness on pointe was refreshing to watch. I loved the use of lighting in this dance as well; the color of the background changed as the music shifted, and at the end, when the two combating parts of the music finally fused, the background turned red to match Tollett’s lips. This dance, shockingly, screamed resilience, the work’s title fitting perfectly. It was bold, strong, beautiful, and kept me on the edge of my seat.

The final piece of the 5:00 show, an excerpt from “Green Light,” choreographed by Trevyn, and performed by a stunning large group of dancers (Gianna Acciacca, Whitney Black, Clare Bowen, Erin Bunker, Kenzie Carron, Hadley Goodwin, Sarah Hart, Jessie Hernandez, Madison Ishii, Cara Laughlin, Gabby Lynch, Jeslyn Russell, Scarlett Vandermeer) was an excellent choice for a closer, tying together my self-proclaimed theme of childhood and adolescence into a faultlessly chilling fashion. There was so much happening in this piece, yet it was never too overwhelming to look at. I felt that this constant movement and layering was well juxtaposed with the moments of stillness, evoking a feeling of unease throughout the audience as we collectively desired to learn what would come next. I felt that the choreography wholly complemented the music, and the dancers grasped the musicality in a way pleasing to both the eyes and ears. I appreciated the classic horror movie screech noises in the music, the frightening, clownish smiles, and the gorgeous, effortless lifts, but what I was most drawn to, was the size of the cast. I had not even noticed how much I missed watching large groups of dancers together on stage as we have become so used to distanced dancing in smaller groups. The cast, the dancing, and the choreography were all phenomenal. It was an impeccable ending to an incredible show.

The 7:00pm show seemed to have its own, different recurring subject matter of discrimination, identity, and overcoming struggles. Again, I’m not sure that these pieces were supposed to correlate in any sense, but I felt that their loose connections made the concert as a whole more powerful and meaningful as each company, each dancer interprets and portrays the same idea in different ways.

The opening dance of this show, entitled “My Name Is” also performed by AkomiDance (Dani Furness, Elena Gilogly, Jessie Hernandez, Cara Laughlin, Alex Rasmussen, Jana Taylor, Emily Whitley Claire Zabaneh) and choreographed by Marie Hoffman was, in a word, mesmerizing. The dancers wore striking red skirts and lace-y black tops, expressing clean movement and sureness in one another. The opening was solemn and mysterious, but it became more intense and angular as the dance moved on and the music swelled. The group was united in a common struggle or experience, made clear by their interactions with and connections to one another on the stage. The final song of the piece showed a clear divide from the earlier more intense and serious songs; it was triumphant and sweet and proclaimed freedom and relief, like the dancers had finally overcome whatever struggle they had been previously faced with. Everyone gave the impression of intimately understanding one another and the music. As an observer, I gave them all of my trust to “wow” me, never feeling removed from the storyline of the piece. I must also mention that the smile the dancers shared with one another at the very end was precious and a perfect finish.

AkomiDance - Crossing the Double Yellow - Photo courtesy of the artists.

AkomiDance – Crossing the Double Yellow – Photo courtesy of the artists.

The dance, “Dis-Located,” choreographed by Louise Reichlin, Artistic Director of Louise Reichlin: Los Angeles Choreographers and Dancers, and performed by Artur Aleksanyan, Jill Elaine Collins, Caitlin M. Heflin, Katelyn Martin, and Eve Metsaranta was truly something else. It began with two girls in jeans and tie-dye and one girl in a purple dress moving in opposition to one another. The movement was interesting, big and appeared thrown away. A stuffed dog and a new character in a green sweater were later added into the mix, and while I enjoyed watching, I was deeply confused about what it all meant. The props appeared separate, and the dancers so entirely different from one another. A man appeared with a lovely shawl (which he ever so kindly passed to one of the women dancers) and a Mary-Poppins-grade bag of nonsensical props. When all of the dancers collapsed to the floor, I thought it might have been the end of the dance, but I was very wrong. The cleanup crew entered to mop the lifeless bodies into a pile and drag away the props so that the pile of dancers could finish the work with a series of interesting movements and shapes. I kept trying to make sense of everything that was happening, and there was nothing quite solid I could grasp from each of my ideas as the dance continued to morph in unexpected ways. It felt like a fever dream in the best possible sense, and eventually, I let the idea of a storyline go, so I could enjoy the surprise and fascination that came with the introduction of each new character and prop.

"Remembrance" - Louise Reichlin: Los Angeles Choreographers & Dancers - Screenshot courtesy of the company

“Remembrance” – Louise Reichlin: Los Angeles Choreographers & Dancers – Screenshot courtesy of the company

What we carry,” a performance by Continuum, choreographed and danced by Alyssa Junious and sung by Erin Vanderhyde, was one of the most awe-striking moments of the festival. Vanderhyde’s voice was flawless and clear, while Junious’s dancing was beautiful and expressive. Together, their presence on stage was remarkable, and the incorporation of the white chain that wrapped around Junious was hugely impressive. The words of the song were inspirational and correlated nicely with the dancing. The second song proved to be more upbeat and the singer watched motionless, minus occasional claps to the rhythm of the song. Overall, this work was unique and the message powerful. I was totally absorbed as I watched, especially because the music for the other dances had been instrumental.

Evolution Dance Company presented “Between the Horizon and the Sun,” choreographed by Val Cabag and performed by Emily Berdeja, Julia Gonzalez, Reese Leach, Ramsey Reeves, Maya Rustenburg, Jackson Sanders, and Kylie Sanders. The dance had more of a contemporary feel and, in a way, reminded me of “Benches” from the previous show due to its length, lack of obvious, strict storyline, and orange, brown, and green earthy toned costumes. The movements were hard hitting, sharp and flowed well with the song; the dancers portraying a longing for something they’d lost or for something they could not quite reach. The disco ball that dropped from the ceiling was a complete shock and quite a nice touch which spiced up the dance in an amusing way. I really enjoyed watching this piece.

The finale of the concert was an absolutely breathtaking piece from the Jazz Spectrum Dance Company (Janell Burgess, Jeni Jones, Stephanie Maxim, Lauren Richter, Estelle Verdugo, Erica Villalpand) entitled, “Witness,” choreographed by

Cast of WOMEN OF SPIRIT by Christine Baltes - Photo by Tony Mierzwicki

Cast of WOMEN OF SPIRIT by Christine Baltes – Photo by Tony Mierzwicki

and Janell Burgess. This type of strong contemporary-jazz dance is a favorite of mine to watch, not to mention the use of Sarah McLachlan’s ever-chilling vocals in “Mercy” and “Witness.” The work featured 5 dancers in grey and one in red, creating an obvious separation between the group and the outcast. The piece insinuated that the dancer in red was tainted or dangerous or simply different (as the color often signifies blood, fire, love, desire, lust, strength, courage, malice). The group in grey was more emotionless, likely untouched by the real world or the experiences that have isolated the person in red. Perfectly in sync with one another, these dancers created beautiful lines and displayed stellar musicality as their emotion radiated off the stage towards us. There was a sense of “will they, won’t they” energy about this work while watching to see if the characters in grey would finally accept the one in red. They left her on the stage, however, alone and rejected. “Witness” was extremely beautiful and the dedication made to Christine Baltes was heartwarming, and an added touch to the masterpiece.

The Orange County Dance Festival was my first real dance concert after a long hiatus due to the pandemic. I have even performed a handful of shows since the world began to get back to normal. To see dancers on stage before me, however, was so exciting and blissful. This production was professional, the dancers were spectacular, and the choreography was extremely unique and captivating. Each number kept me on my toes and wanting more. Oh, what a joy it was to just be sitting in the presence of live dance again.

To visit the AkomiDance website, click HERE.

Written by Lilli Dunn for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Goblin Party – Photo courtesy of the company