Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, DC

October 7, 2016

Carmel Morgan

When the VelocityDC Dance Festival began eight years ago in Washington, DC, tickets were $10, and the multiple performances were sold out. I even saw people scalping tickets on the street! The DC area’s biggest and most successful dance companies, like the Washington Ballet, participated. It was an exciting time for dance, and I think the festival helped draw a new dance audience. Flash forward eight years and ticket prices have gone up to $18. I guess that’s not so surprising. The number of performances has dwindled to just two, and the Washington Ballet has been represented lately by its Studio Company. And, the festival, sadly, now no longer sells out. There were many, many empty seats all around me this year.

I’m not sure why VelocityDC has lost its velocity. DC has a vibrant and diverse dance community, and the festival touches only a small portion of it. Nevertheless, this year’s festival exposed the audience to contemporary dance, ballet, tap, classical Indian dance, hip hop, and Hand Dance — an improvisational form of swing style partner dance that originated in the nation’s capital in the early 1950s by African Americans as a form of social recreation and entertainment. That’s pretty diverse!

Contemporary dance dominated the program, but that reflects its popularity. Three of the strongest contemporary choreographers in the DC area were represented — the relatively new on the scene Tiffanie Carson and Robert J. Priore, and also Christopher K. Morgan, who has become a local choreographic veteran. In fact, both Carson and Priore have danced in Morgan’s work. Morgan must be a good influence because Carson and Priore are developing very nicely as young choreographers, and Morgan continues to hone his sharp choreographic skills.  

Carson’s Run Love Run opened the program. The ten dancers (nine women and one man), current students and alumni of the Shenandoah Conservatory Dance Ensemble, wearing all black, gathered in a cluster. The music included bass thumps. I couldn’t discern the story but there seemed to be a narrative about a couple being separated by various forces in the form of the group, who surrounded them. Carson is adept at moving many dancers, and Run Love Run kept my attention.                

Chamber Pas, choreographed by Stuart Loungway, artistic director of Terra Firma Dance Theatre (“TFDT”), a contemporary ballet company, was next on the program. I was not familiar with TFDT, and that’s probably because Loungway and his company are new to DC. The duet, danced by Jessica Miller and Ahmaud Culver, again in all black, to music by Marin Marais, was generally well done, but lacked consistency. For example, Miller melted in a backbend over Culver’s arm; yet when she pounded his chest, her punches were too light for the emotional content.                     

In Company E’s AIR, the costumes for the five dancers were silvery gray, the lighting design by Paul Gordon Emerson featured pools of light and clouds, and a chorus clad in black (Washington Performing Arts’ Children of the Gospel Choir) sang behind them (the second movement of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs by Henryk Gorecki). But to me the piece didn’t work. The voices coming from the row of shadows, to my ear, were shrill. More importantly, the choreography, by Emerson and the dancers — lots of stretches and abstract forms — was intense, but didn’t move me.    

choreography by Thomas L. Moore, Jr., photo by Kanji Takeno

choreography by Thomas L. Moore, Jr., photo by Kanji Takeno

Also new to me was choreographer Thomas L. Moore, Jr. That’s probably because he’s a young choreographer. Moore’s work Feed struck me as young work. A single female dancer, bent over, walked backward across the front of the stage, her arms stretched behind leading her, wriggling and grasping. The dancer looked up into a column of light and opened her mouth as if to catch rain. Later, a tightly knit group danced to a relentless club beat. Their chests undulated, their bodies gyrated.

Closing the first half was the percussive dance company SOLE Defined with Frequency. A colorful video montage on a screen above the dancers’ heads showed old school tap heroes, while the dancers, all in white, tapped to Old School by Dirty Dozen. Their syncopated rhythms rang out in happy unison.  

Interspersed between these dances were demonstrations of Hand Dance by couples from the National Hand Dance Association. These dancers charmed with their enthusiasm and swagger.  Senior men and women showed off classic forms of this social dance, while a much younger couple, including a 15-year-old female, displayed the new generation’s form of Hand Dance. Also between the various dances, host Regie Cabico, in a fur boa and green glittery pants, informed and entertained the audience. While he was typically quick with jokes, and joked often about himself, at one point he read an incredible poem he authored about Nina Simone. That powerful poem almost stole the show.      

After intermission, the excerpt from Robert J. Priore’s Speak Easy looked like something that any big name dance company would be proud to introduce. The music choices (Sunday Kind of Love by Etta James, Funny Valentine by Ella Fitzgerald, and Sway by Julie London) were bliss. In particular, the duet to Funny Valentine, danced by Vanessa Owen and Gavin Stewart, was seamless and beautiful and had unique, smile-inducing moments throughout. Owen made little chops against Stewart’s back.  She also backed into his chest. Although I appreciate simplicity, I suggest that Priore consider changing the dull smudge colored costumes, which didn’t complement the lively dancing.

Prakriti Dance, founded by dancers Kasi Aysola and Madhvi Venkatesh, presented Swaralayam, choreographed in the classical Indian dance style of Bharata Natyam. Aysola and Venkatesh received warm applause from the audience, despite the relative unfamiliarity of this dance style.  

The Washington Ballet Studio Company followed with excerpts from Resonance choreographed by Washington Ballet company member Tamas Krizsa. The work began in silence, but when the dramatic music started, it was booming. I was reminded of scattered birds. The young dancers seems rather overwhelmed and imperfectly rehearsed. Moments that should have been in unison weren’t.  

Christopher K. Morgan’s Teetering, by his company Christopher K. Morgan & Artists, in all gray costumes by Kelsey Hunt, didn’t distinguish itself much from other contemporary works I’ve seen by Morgan. I’m on the record as liking most of what Morgan produces, and Teetering still struck me as an accomplished piece. The company’s dancers, as they have been when I’ve reviewed them in the past, were strong and compelling.  But although Morgan does use tension and pauses to great effect, ultimately Teetering didn’t grab me.

Capitol Movement, Move the World: Glory, photo by Studio Diana

Capitol Movement, Move the World: Glory, photo by Studio Diana

Capitol Movement closed the evening with Shontal Snider’s Move the World: Glory. The dancers, through creative hip hop storytelling, looked backward in time to esteemed figures Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. I appreciated leaving the theater on an inspiring and uplifting note.