dance, theater and music by Mary Ellen Hunt.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Riding the Wave

WestWave Dance Festival
Cowell Theater, San Francisco
July 12, 2009

By the time we got to the Cowell Theater, full of anticipation for the 2009 WestWave Dance Festival, the line stretched far into the parking lot of the Fort Mason Center making the distance between us and the seats of the Cowell Theater feel like they were miles away. Patiently determined theatergoers, however, looked undaunted by the 20 minute wait (at five minutes to curtain) and box office mixups and by the time the show finally got underway half an hour late, the mood was unaccountably good-humored despite the obstacles.

(photo of Amy Seiwert by Andy Mogg)

In the long foggy San Francisco summers, WestWave Dance Festival's concentrated showing of local choreographers has long been an indispensable annual event for Bay Area dance aficionados. So it was happy news that despite tight financial times, producer Joan Lazarus was forging ahead with the festival this year, albeit in a shortened version -- one night only and with a limited number of companies participating.

Some of the work has been seen before, but worth a second--or third-- viewing. Katie Faulkner's seductive film "Loom" which traces the threads of a relationship played out between Faulkner and Private Freeman made an appropriately moody lead-in to "Until We Know for Sure," which the same two dancers performed live to snippets of music drawn from Maria Silva and Alfredo Duarte, among others. Floating in patches of light, Faulkner and Freeman melded one movement into the next with an ease and fluidity that still managed to surprise the eye with its impulsiveness. It doesn't hurt that the both of them have technical strength to burn--Faulkner's stability in a deep plie on half-pointe was mesmerizing, and Freeman's steady and attentive partnering was the linchpin on which the entire encounter turned.

Linchpins also leapt to mind while watching Amy Seiwert's latest "Response to Change" in which the choreography turns on split-second catches and fiendishly speedy interlocking of limbs. Dressed in purple tunics and t-shirts, Im'ij-re's four couples (Robin Cornwell, Vanessa Thiessen, Sharon Wehner, Kathi Martuza, Kevin Delany, Koichi Kubo, Matthew Linzer and John Speed Orr) work with seemed --given the score by Mason Bates entitled "The Life of Birds"--a fitful birdlike theme, although the demands of secure pointework seemed to make some of the women slightly cautious at first, though their confidence seemed to blossom as the piece developed, and one could only appreciate Thiessen's bullet-like pluck-- a pleasant counterpoint to Martuza's matter-of-factly, almost slyly, delivered supple extensions.

Also on the program was the premiere of Manuelito Biag's "Terra Incognita," a fractal of a dance that moved through solos, duets and trios for Biag, Kara Davis and Alex Ketley accompanied by song fragments composed and sung by Faulkner on guitar. On first view, "Terra Incognita" looks disjointed, dancers sussing out admittedly beautiful phrases of movement in a set dominated by bare lights and chairs. Davis and Ketley play out a tender pas de deux, Biag dances a solo with weighty moves that recall tai-chi, Davis flies about the space in an impassioned solo like a wild woman-- but still, this looks a bit like a dance being workshopped and still in progress. Nevertheless, as phrases of movement and music repeat and reassemble in ever-growing patterns a certain kind of organic order emerges. Even if the whole never seems to really cohere into a complete statement, it was worthwhile, both for the concept and the execution.

"Terra incognita" could well have described "*FLASH REAL* a Song Dance Cycle" Kim Epifano's mystifying and oddly frustrating journey through two years' worth of work which opened the evening. Accompanied live by composer and didgeridoo player Stephen Kent -- who also created the sound bed for this first of a multi-part work-- Epifano sang, swooshed and flew about the stage, drawing props and clothing Mary Poppins-like out of a capacious suitcase and seemingly menaced by a dangling crystal chandelier that loomed over the whole procedure like the sword of Damocles. I'm a bit of a skeptic at heart and any piece with a lot of running in circles tends to make my eyes narrow, but "*FLASH REAL*" was simply perplexing. Even though I had some awareness of Epifano's journeys to China, Tibet and Ethiopia, and followed her recent work, I couldn't fathom at all where she was taking us, although the collaboration with Kent looks like an avenue worth exploring.

Whether "Wake", the title of LEVYdance's offering on the WestWave program, refers to awakening, or to a funeral is unclear, although this lengthy duet for Brooke Gessay and Scott Marlowe felt as though it tended far more toward the sepulchral. As esoteric as I found "Wake," though, it's maybe a little unfair to try to re-evaluate this 2008 work based on this performance. Solemnly slow motion hip swivels and shoulder rolls were jarred out of focus by an obviously distracted and bored toddler who ran about the aisles and was finally removed shrieking from the auditorium. While I couldn't condone the impulse that led her parents to take her to what was obviously an adult event that was just too long for her, I also couldn't help but sympathize with her.

The evening closed on a similarly dark note with Patrick Makuakane's "From the last to the first," performed by the hula troupe Na Lei Hulu i Ka Wekiu. Beginning with a wailing lamentation and moving through somber ground through traditional dances to broadly curvacious choreography set to Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," this was hula seen in a serious mold. Unfortunately, although the power of the group and the sway of the mass of dancers onstage, in another context, might have been alluring and provocative, I was hoping not to leave the theater so depressed.

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