This past Saturday, L.A. Dance Project presented “artists working in the cross currents of Dance and Contemporary Art” as the first installment, of hopefully many, open studios during Frieze LA. Curated by Tonya Lockyer, with support by Job Piston and Kate Wallich, four separate choreographers showcased new ideas and works in progress in front of a live audience. Over the course of about an hour, onlookers were provided a glimpse into new movement and concepts by Lionel Popkin’s Reorient the Orient, Kate Wallich’s Tuning (Unfolding) and Systems (Bieber), Marjani Forté-Saunders’ On Permanence [A Study] While change is ‘Goddin’ Me, and Julia Eichten’s Julie with a Beet (excerpt). By the end of each snippet, I only wanted more. Not only were all these choreographer’s revered in the professional curriculum of their medium, but this type of informal and exploratory “audience meets performer” experience was just that…an experience of true awakening. In the middle of the afternoon, I took a chance on four, never before seen, works that I didn’t have to like or dislike. I didn’t feel like I wasted money, or a Friday night, because it was a free afternoon of showered involvement. This simple construct released the pressure on some observers who may not be familiar with dance, and simultaneously to observers who know dance well.

Popkin began his performance score wearing large rubber work boots, and a set of headphones. He approached a microphone and music stand and read aloud thoughts and questions posed towards those of us listening. Behind him, a tall working ladder with an elephant headpiece sat on top, as he moved away from the microphone, released his feet from the boots, and began arm movement in ribbon-like motion. Knowing Popkin’s work often explores representation of the “South Asian diaspora in North America” I was particularly impressed with his use of poignant comedy throughout. The work, an 8 hour durational installation, will examine his own archive of 30 years of art-making including projected videos, 217 neon yellow wiffle balls, and purple sleeping bag suit. With original sound by Tom Lopez, this work will premiere at REDCAT in 2024, and all I can say is run to opening night! From the excerpt seen, it’s sprinkled with historical representation, satire, and a general ease of movement and floorwork that only adds to the profound nature of Popkin’s body of work.

Work-in-progress by Kate Wallich - Photo courtesy of LADP

Work-in-progress by Kate Wallich – Photo courtesy of LADP

Before Julia even entered the scene, the audience was met with a tired old maroon carpet/rug, a simple black folding stool, and a cleaned beet vegetable cut in half near the base. Eichten entered in a pale yellow cotton shirt with a few buttons, tucked into black tights, and the makeup of a 1920’s burlesque performer by Jasmine Sugar. As Eichten sat on the stool, Maybe This Time by Liza Minnelli in Cabaret began playing. Julia sang along as she performed her version of this timeless piece in a continuous attempt and failure of Minnelli’s character, Sally Bowles. The first time around of the song was an introduction to the attempt, as she threw in classic dance moves, such as a high kick and pirouette, as Julia mumbled under her breath the words. As the song came to a close, Eichten sat with a beet, already being used as a microphone, catching her breath…and then the song played again with that definitive opening line, “Maybe this time…” With the brilliant help of dramaturg, Kevin Zambrano, together they dramatized the humor, the endeavor, the yearning to become Sally Bowles once more with a greater sense of Broadway slapstick without it blushing over. And with each attempt, as the song played over and over again, it became more apparent that the root of this piece was not in comedy, but in tragedy and pain. It became more complicated, more poetic and fascinating to watch this woman unravel and pull it all back together again. And with the red beet staining her shirt and skin, the audience got a glimpse of something bloody, and something disturbed in her past just waiting to be developed. This smart choreographic rhythm by Eichten is the kind of dance that you always want to stumble upon and be taken by surprise with. The full work will derive of one hour loops throughout the day, and after watching her in one 15 min afternoon showing, I can honestly say one hour might not even be enough to encapsulate the brilliant dramaturgy.

Throughout Popkin and Eichten’s performances, we have a figure in all black tulle, and dark brown top hat, sitting upon a ladder upstage right facing the wall. The figure, who is revealed to be Marjani Forté-Saunders, is almost forgettable until she begins to move. As she makes her way down off the ladder, she’s met with an off white cloth hanging on the brick wall of L.A. Dance Project’s space. Without ever turning her back, we see her slowly move across the canvas, trailing a bright red painted mark behind her – almost like she was leaving a mark, a note to be found or an abstract viewpoint to be discussed and found later. This combination of keepsake dance, of art made to withstand the ages through movement, is a beautiful line of study I had not truly needed to explore until watching it happen before me. She turns around to face the audience, face shrouded in black fabric, as she continuously picked up the long tulle skirt over and over again making her way towards downstage. With simple and effective movement, Marjani would bend her joints in image like snapshots that rest so clear in my mind that I feel I have a photographic reference, and all without showing her facial expression. Her deliberate attempt to show the power of dance as a tangible memory, as something that sticks with you long after you’ve left, is a brand new idea I cannot wait to see investigated more. It’s often rare to find brand new work not only in movement, but in intellect. Marjani Forté-Saunders had both.

Work-in-progress by Marjani Forté-Saunders - Photo courtesy of LADP

Work-in-progress by Marjani Forté-Saunders – Photo courtesy of LADP

Lastly, Kate Wallich’s improvised score of “un-preconceived images from dance iconography” was the absolute cherry on top of a sundae afternoon of dance. Along with Wallich, movement artists Keilan Stafford, Jul Wiggins, Celine Kiner, Gigi Todisco, and Marlie Couto added visionary movement to the space using props such as pvc pipe, a foldable table, chairs, and a foam roller. While not every mover interacted with a reinforced prop, it was the interaction with themselves that I found the most fascinating. While All Around Me by Justin Bieber played on a loop, each dancer seemed to act on their own interpretation of the lyrics playing, but also react to that interpretation’s internalization. On the surface, it seemed like it could perhaps be a straightforward improvisational score, and perhaps this is attributed to the pop music we can tune out and enjoy rhythmically. But, with each loop, we can see a very complex development of movement done many times before and yet never done before. This is Wallich’s strength. She invites you in, on plain white paper, black ink Helvetica, and before you know it, you’re finishing a novel you can’t put down. Dressed in comfortable layered clothing, we see each and every one of them move through feelings of “desire, intimacy, and loss”. And with movements so specific to powerful themes of human milestones, it’s hard not to insert your own memories as part of the dance influx. Without a doubt, this project-in-progress is developing its own powerhouse voice that could be scored in any environment.

It is apparent that all four choreographers were part of, what I hope to be, many more series of Artist-Driven Open Studios to come. LA desperately needs a space where pretension to an art form already misunderstood by so many, is left at the door. L.A. Dance Project Presents was a safe place for choreographers to practice their play, and for audience members to let their guard down.

For more information on L.A. Dance Project, please visit their website.

This article was edited to include a name on 3/7/23.

Written by Grace Courvoisier for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Work-in-progress by Lionel Popkin – Photo courtesy of LADP