Shenandoah Harris is the founder of Psychopomp Dance Theater. Now in its second season, the company presented RELICS: Return to Clay at Diavolo Performance Space in Los Angeles on Thursday, May 30, 2019. With degrees in both Dance, and Theater Production and Design, Harris has combined her training to create a fusion of dance styles which include capoeira dance and RELICS: Return to Clay demonstrated that Harris has potential.

When the house opened, the audience was greeted with live music of various genres performed by the newly formed trio High School Friends with Leah Hamel on cello and vocals, vocalist Taylor Olandt, and Kevin Larkins on guitar and vocals. The music was pleasant, but the lyrics were often difficult to understand. Prominent within the trio was Leah Hamel whose performance on the cello was as strong as her dancing with BrockusRED and other dance groups around LA.

According to my research, capoeira was created as a martial art disguised as dance. Developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil during the 16th century, capoeira incorporated elements of dance, acrobatics, and music, and known for its speed, power, and leverage utilizing spins and kicks. These movements were prominent throughout RELICS: Return to Clay. Aerial cartwheels, back flips that leapt over another performer, or assisted barrel rolls across a person’s back appeared often. Underneath all the physically impressive feats, however, was a strong narrative of primal beings vying for leadership and the realization of self and others.

Three women (Maijalisa Miltz, Kaycee Jannino, and Annelise Bucher) enter by crawling on their hands and knees before showcasing Harris’ capoeira inspired movement. An antiquated wooden box with a short metal object protruding from its center, sat downstage center. This box or relic periodically drew the leader’s concern and curiosity, allowing the others to rob her of her position. While busy in battle, two men (Andrew Corpuz and Abraham Meisel) slowly make their way around the perimeter toward the wooden relic. Two women unite to protect the prized object while the leader slowly approaches wielding a sledgehammer. She slammed the hammer’s head down upon the relic causing an ominous sounding explosion and total darkness.

The return of light revealed the five people lying nearby as if rendered unconscious by the explosion. The relic was gone, but a mysterious pile of gray sand (composed of Vermiculite) lay in the middle of the group like the hub of a wheel. After awaking, one woman shoved an arm deep down into the pile, drew out a handful of sand and, realizing that the substance had healing powers, set out to awaken the others.

High School Friends - Photo Credit Roger Martin Holman Psychopomp Dance Theater1 - Photo Credit Roger Martin Holman Psychopomp Dance Theater2 - Photo Credit Roger Martin Holman Psychopomp Dance Theater3 - Photo Credit Roger Martin Holman Psychopomp Dance Theater5 - Photo Credit Roger Martin Holman
Psychopomp Dance Theater - Kaycee Jannino in RELICS: Return To Clay - Photo: Roger Martin Holman for LA Dance Chronicle

Harris was inspired by “the archaic myth of the Great Flood that spans both culture and religion”, and the piece was driven by a powerful and original electronic score by Riley Smith with dramatic lighting by Christina Schwinn. RELICS: Return to Clay actually came across having a similar theme seen in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey but told through movement rather than dialogue and special effects. The relic and gray substance appeared to act as Kubrick’s monolith. When seen, mankind was thrust into another evolutionary stage of intelligence. Here, the primal qualities were replaced with discovery and a sense of focus and affection. What never left them, sadly, was their warrior characteristics and a desire to dominate. The work ended with the death of two women and gray sand used to cover their remains. Ashes to ashes or the return to clay. There was no great flood, but Harris did show us that a devastating catastrophe had occurred and that it forever altered the inhabitants of her envisioned world.

Harris has also planted the seeds for a very strong company. RELICS: Return to Clay contains many moments of strength, clarity and surprise, but her movement phrases began to feel repetitive and a few time they lost energy causing the music to overpower the choreography. Example: at the end of the second section, two women are at conflict. Moments before a second blackout, the music is dramatically building toward its crescendo, but the movement weakens and fades away. Harris failed to demonstrate the cause for the women to be found dead when light returned. Their struggle did not appear to be life threatening, so what was the outside cause? With attention and editing, this disparity could be avoided.

Psychopomp Dance Theater is a company to keep an eye on, and Shenandoah Harris a choreographer to watch. For RELICS: Return to Clay the cast included Maijalisa Miltz, Kaycee Jannino, Annelise Bucher, Andrew Corpuz, and Abraham Meisel. Their performances, especially the women, were very strong and convincing. The Scenic and Costume design was by Ryan Howard, whose costumes worked very well for the women, but not for the two men.

For more information about Psychopomp Dance Theater, click here.

For information about Diavolo Performance Space, click here.

Featured image: Psychopomp Dance Theater in RELICS: Return To Clay – Photo: Roger Martin Holman for LA Dance Chronicle