The sun settled over The Culver Steps in Culver City as an ensemble of string musicians let the first note of the evening unfurl. Meanwhile, a crew of dancers stepped in between the audience and the instruments to embody each note and lyric, bringing the story of RENEWAL to life.

The immersive concert presented by Emersion Music told a story of growth following the harrowing beginning years of the COVID-19 pandemic through compositions by Matthew Wang, Emer Kinsella (who is also the creator of Emersion Music), Hannah Parrott, Carla Patullo, Denise Santos, and Yuichiro Oku. Darrel “Friidom” Dunn materialized the music into movement with the help of Malik “Gvmby” Bannister, Allie Costello, and Alyse Rockett. The dance artists activated the space around them while the audience sat at the top of the stairs. At the same time, the Emersion Ensemble — consisting of EMER, Mehmet Aydin, Mark Bassett, Hakeem Holloway, Enosh Kofler, and Boryana Popova — remained at the center of the steps. RENEWAL, which ran from April 24 to 25, was an intimate collaboration between music and dance that displayed the joys of artistic synergy and the beauties of connection.

Darrel "Friidom" Dunn in Emersion Music's RENEWAL - Photo: Steven Vargas.

Darrel “Friidom” Dunn in Emersion Music’s RENEWAL – Photo: Steven Vargas.

The movement direction by Friidom centered on the passing of energy. The four performers lined up in front of the audience, passing an aura in their hands to one another. They each took hold of the energy and let it shake their bones. The crux of the performance came to fruition during a duet with Friidom and Gvmby when that energy was tossed between the two. They pushed and pulled on each other, continually growing in intensity, until Friidom pulled away holding the same aura introduced at the beginning in his hands. He looked at it with a smile, but as it left from his grasp, it faded, and a look of pain took over. The feeling flowed down from his hand and head down to his chest and feet. His performance — combined with the music of composers who often create film scores — brought out a cinematic sensibility to the show that was entrancing to witness, incorporating strong and intentional facial expressions.

For me, it became clear that this was the secret ingredient to immersive dance experiences. It made the narrative and full-body movement heavier and more impactful.

Alyse Rockett (center) and musicians in Emersion Music's RENEWAL - Photo: Steven Vargas

Alyse Rockett (center) and musicians in Emersion Music’s RENEWAL – Photo: Steven Vargas

The third chapter of RENEWAL was particularly captivating and marked a point of no return for the narrative. Costello began the section with small, isolated movements that embodied the music coming from a violin. Her arm stretched and twitched, not seeking to form a particular shape, but rather to align with the rhythm. The chapter explored this approach to movement, resulting in satisfying imagery. She continued to the opposite side of the steps, letting her chase for the tempo flow between styles. At one point, her arm swung over her arm — hinting at a contemporary section — but quickly slowed into a soft krumping movement. Rockett followed Costello with a more contemporary style as she moved in between musicians to shift and groove with the strings. Her movement was also hinted with street styles, utilizing them to highlight an outlying note in the music. These solos emphasized the staple of Friidom’s movement direction. He doesn’t seek to unify choreography — he highlights the performers’ styles and personalities.

The section concluded with a haunting song by Kinsella titled Perchance. The song held a strong dissonance between instruments that replicated the sounds of creaking doors and screeching wood. The dancers took hold of the music in their bodies, quaking and moving at high speed down the steps. What remained was a strong vibration in the air.

(L-R) Allie Costello and Alyse Rockett in Emersion Music's RENEWAL - Photo: Steven Vargas.

(L-R) Allie Costello and Alyse Rockett in Emersion Music’s RENEWAL – Photo: Steven Vargas.

Following the rupture of chapter three, the remainder of the show was filled with joyous play. “Back on this planet,” EMER sang as Friidom and Rockett took the stage. Friidom nudged Rockett for her attention, then started salsa dancing. A smile crept on Rockett’s face as she joined in. It felt like a moment of reflection, revisiting a pre-pandemic reality where connection was not riddled with risk. In conjunction with the lyrics, the movement felt precious to hold and witness. As the duo exited, Friidom reintroduced the motif of holding energy, shaping it in his hand and blowing it into the space they just danced in as if releasing the memory and acknowledging how fondly we must cherish it.

In a more comedic section, Friidom joined Gvmby again, communicating through street styles and at one point, connecting solely through the Dougie. The two then turned to the crowd, breaking the fourth wall to interact with audience members. A laugh erupted from the crowd as the two posed for someone taking a photo. The literal connection to people transitioned into a moment of optimism where they pointed up to the sky, longing for something. Perhaps, their yearning was for more moments like the ones they created with the audience — moments of community.

(L-R) Darrel "Friidom" Dunn, Allie Costello, Malik "Gvmby" Bannister, Alyse Rockett in Emersion Music's RENEWAL - Photo: Steven Vargas.

(L-R) Darrel “Friidom” Dunn, Allie Costello, Malik “Gvmby” Bannister, Alyse Rockett in Emersion Music’s RENEWAL – Photo: Steven Vargas.

RENEWAL mused on the importance of community, intentionally placing itself in public. The trees swayed and Gvmby’s shirt flapped in the wind. In a moment of stillness, your view could expand past the performers, and you saw everyone on the steps and in the plaza mesmerized by the colliding art forms. This was the beauty of connection.

For more information about Emersion Music, please visit their website.

To learn more about Darrel “Friidom” Dunn, please visit his website.

Written by Steven Vargas for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Darrel “Friidom” Dunn and Malik “Gvmby” Bannister in Emersion Music’s RENEWAL – Photo: Steven Vargas.