Dance Place, Washington, DC; July 26, 2014
Washington, DC’s Dance Place recently underwent a major renovation, and the theater is now back in business. Saturday, July 26, 2014, marked my first visit to Dance Place since performances returned to the main building, and things looked, as they should, new and improved. I hope the welcome changes will enable the venue to continue to enrich the DC community for many decades to come.
DancEthos, a modern dance company founded by Artistic Director and choreographer Tiffany Haughn in 2010, is a relative new kid on the block in terms of the local DC dance scene. The company’s Dance Place performance featured a number of guest artists and choreographers. This collaborative approach is part of the company’s mission to offer “a variety of artistic voices and visions on stage” via “diverse performances that are appealing and accessible to the non-dancer audience member.”
While I don’t count as a non-dancer audience member, I do think the performance probably connected with those in the audience who aren’t very familiar with contemporary dance. There was none of the purposefully obscure, staring blankly ahead, dancing to music composed of loud, random electronic blips and bleeps that I’ve seen too much of lately and that would alienate any pretty much anyone. No, the themes of the works by DancEthos and guests were, thankfully, simple and universal, and centered upon human relationships. The dancing came across as totally relatable, and none of the music selections made one want to covers one’s ears.
Among the pieces by DancEthos choreographers, Haughn’s premiere “Convergence” stood apart. In a moving duet, Assistant Director Carolyn Kamrath, who according to notes was performing for the last time with the company, and Jenny T. Flemingloss, in sleeveless cream-colored lace dresses, navigated around a long narrow bench. The pair moved as if hampered by some unknown force from connecting on the deepest level. They literally connected plenty of times, sitting back to back, for example, but they also seemed distant to an extent. At one point, one scooped her arms upward, with palms turned toward the ceiling, while the other swooped with her hands turned in the opposite direction, so it seemed like they shared not the same wavelength, but a similar one.
I’m not a fan of most props, but here the bench was put to good use. Among other things, it was turned upside down. Flemingloss stepped gingerly on top of the legs of the bench, which were sticking into the air. At another point, Kamrath wrapped herself into a space between bench legs on the floor. Briefly, she curled in a little dark den. The piece was melancholic and also beautiful. I had hoped, given the title “Convergence,” that the dancers would finally emotionally embrace, but instead, just as the lights went out, they leapt off opposite ends of the bench, in opposite directions.
The most powerful and visually stunning piece on the program was “Actions speak louder,” a 2014 work danced and performed by guest artists Sylvana Christopher and Althea Skinner. In this duet, the couple absolutely lit up the stage. Both women wore white sleeveless tops and vivid orangey red bottoms. Christopher had on a skirt and Skinner wide-legged pants, and both wore matching bright lipstick. The video by Desiree Bayonet, still photos by Maggie Picard, and original music, Empire Trashed (redux) by Ramtin Arablouei with contributions by the band Drop Electric, all played an integral role. Dancing in front of video projections can be tricky. Often the audience feels uncertain where to look and frustration ensues. Often, too, the video projections seem meaninglessly tacked onto the dancing. Even though the video was busy and the images (clouds, flowers, fruit, etc.) changed fairly quickly, I did not feel distracted, nor did I feel that the video bore no relationship to the dancing. To the contrary, it all clicked. Something fresh and life affirming emerged from every element of the work, and I couldn’t help but smile.
Outside a dancer’s ear, frenzied fingers from one hand fluttered. Later, the dancers leaned toward each other with a whisper gesture. They expertly melted to the floor together. Whatever conflicts they faced, they resolved and became a stronger couple because of them. Christopher and Skinner kept eye contact with each other, and they effectively translated the intensity between them to the audience. I was ready to watch “Actions speak louder” again immediately.
Like Christopher and Skinner, guest artist Tina Fratello also showed how to keep an audience’s attention by focusing her gaze. So confident was her expression, from the moment the lights hit her, even before she moved, you knew you could sit back in your seat and you’d be taken on a fun ride. Fratello’s solo work, “Square Root of My Heart,” from 2009, proved sassy and enjoyable. To a jaunty pop tune “Academia” by Sia Furler and Daniel De Mussenden Carrey, she let loose, swiveling around in an office chair, with pointed toes, and making the chair turn by standing on it and swooshing her hips.
Guest choreographer Gabrielle Campagna delivered a playful piece as well with her 2011 work “Semigloss”. Three dancers (Flemingloss, Kamrath, and Donnie Walker) clowned among paint cans, which littered the stage. A dancer balanced on top of a can of paint, stretching one leg precariously behind. Amid laughter, Walker lifted Kamrath, straight as a stick, her feet tightly tucked in a single paint can, and carried her across the stage. Old timey French songs added to the light-hearted mood. Dance Place’s technical director/theater manager, Ben Levine, is a master lighting designer, and I assume he was responsible for the great lighting throughout the performance. That for “Semigloss,” with scattered large dots of light echoing the round tops of the paint cans, could not have been more perfect.
I happened to sit near a friendly pair of audience members: a young French woman briefly in DC through a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, and a French translator. After the performance, they politely and diplomatically expressed to me their surprise that a number of the dancers were, well, physically larger than your average stick-thin ballerina. Apparently, only the skinny variety of dancers are typically seen in France. The fact that dancers of many different sizes appeared on the stage made a huge impression on them. From their perspective, although they recognized the importance of technique, they observed that heart is also important, and they assured me they experienced such energy and passion from all of the performers that they soon forgot they were watching dancers who would not fit into the petite dancer mold. It’s a nice lesson for anyone to learn – you don’t have to starve yourself or be born with genes that make it easy to achieve a narrow waist to be appreciated as a dancer.
Another audience member wondered aloud what obligation a choreographer has, if any, to create movement that flatters dancers’ different body types and skill sets. I love seeing a true variety of bodies on the stage, but I’m also prepared to be honest about my aesthetic preferences. Some movement looks better on some people than others, for all sorts of reasons, and, for me, at least, body shape and size are relevant factors. I felt like, rather than taking into account the way the movement looked on each individual, the DancEthos choreographers – Haughn, Kamrath, and company member Elizabeth Odell Catlett – stuck with an artistic vision that encompassed the group as a whole. This didn’t always serve certain dancers well, but I don’t fault the choreographic approach. In fact, there’s something to be said for demanding that the same designated steps be done by everyone, even if the result isn’t optimally attractive. On the other hand, though, I suspect that some of the dancers would have shined more brightly if the choreography had been customized to show off their particular strengths.